Robert Olen Butler knows his way around a sex scene. His 1994 novel, They Whisper, is basically nothing but detailed, rhapsodic descriptions of lovemaking. So fans of literary erotica could be forgiven for, um, salivating a little in anticipation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's new collection, Intercourse. Each story is a pair of tiny, stream-of-consciousness monologues (often so brief as to be more like trickle-of-consciousness monologues), told from the point of view of a lover during sex.
So far, so hot summer read. Alas, no such luck: Here, "intercourse" is that staid, middle-English word which makes sixth-grade vocabulary students snicker but offers no salacious implications at all. In almost every one of the 50 pairings, the "lovers" involved just aren't that into each other. They're having sex, yes, but most of them are thinking about pretty much anything but sex.
Which is not to say that Intercourse is a bad book. It might be disappointingly unsmutty, but it's supremely clever, even brilliant in spots, and occasionally snort-out-loud funny. The long line of historical couples that Butler imagines in flagrante begins with Adam and Eve ("behold, naked is good too") and ends with Santa Claus and Ingebirgitta, an elf who thinks she might prefer to bed the Easter Bunny in a back room of Santa's workshop. While Santa is "dashing and dancing and cometing and vixening" upon her ageless body, Ingebirgitta is thinking that what she really wants for Christmas is a "Dirty Decadence 12-Speed Rabbit-Wand Double-Dip Flex-O-Pulse Vibrator."
This kind of deft allusion and adroit wordplay is all over Intercourse. Eve is less than impressed with Adam, who's too "proud of his own little snake," and the soprano in bed with Mozart observes that his music is perfect but his lovemaking involves "too many notes." Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, is pursuing happiness with Sally Hemings, while Freud concludes, "so here I am fucking my mother." Thankfully, many of the allusions are not so obvious: A young Oscar Wilde, bedding an old Walt Whitman, remarks on their essential incompatibility by observing, "I sound my nuanced yip in the parlors of the world." And Jean-Paul Sartre, age 24, toils away upon Simone de Beauvoir, thinking there's "too much of her and too little of me: I think I'm going to be sick." To understand these scenes, you don't have to recognize the "barbaric yawp" which Whitman sounded "over the roofs of the world," or know that the 1938 novel which first vaulted Sartre to literary fame was called Nausea—but to get the jokes, you do.
Such relentless cleverness can grow cloying, particularly the puns involving what in another sort of novel might be called a throbbing member: Marc Antony's mansword, Shakespeare's quill ("the tip growing wet and dark"), Lincoln's "rail-split" log, Babe Ruth's big fat bat. And there's a vein of shallow snark here that's ill-suited to a story collection which reaches hard for literary heights and mostly achieves them. While George and Laura Bush are going at it in the White House, for instance, Butler's version of the First Lady isn't lying back and thinking of England, but she's doing a very American version of it—deciding whether to redecorate the Lincoln Bedroom. The young Hillary and Bill Clinton fare even worse in their own maiden voyage: Hillary is ambivalent ("This had to be done eventually") and Bill is determined: "Before she's done here, I've got to figure out how to get on top." A cheap shot, both of them, and too easy for this collection with its gradual, nuanced revelation of the entire panoply of human character and desire.
For Intercourse is more than just an extended parlor trick or a collection of inside jokes aimed at the most annoying kind of English major. Emerging from this literary exercise is genuine poetry, and a deep current of heartbreak runs beneath even the snarkiest entries.
The sense of our shared vulnerability is hard to avoid in a book populated entirely by naked people. And indeed, many of these figures are acutely aware of their own essential absurdity and impermanence. Some are indignant, some resigned, some fighting their irrelevance all the way, but almost all of them are striving to ignore the big-D death through an orgasmic little death. In the arms of Robert Kennedy, who obsesses over whether he can keep it up longer than his brother Jack could ("I am ten minutes and counting"), Marilyn Monroe is simply trying to escape "the nothing that is usually trying to claw its way out of my chest, out of my wrists, out of my throat and eyes and brain, the nothing that I am...."
Most poignant of all is the sense of isolation that permeates the collection. Each couple fails almost entirely to enter one another except in a purely clinical way. Even engaging in this universal act, the one most likely to promote human communion, we are each essentially alone—and fully aware of our own isolation. As Butler, who is a veteran of the Vietnam war, writes of his own one-night stand in Saigon last year: "A woman's lips move against mine speaking their own secret language, which, after all these years of my life, I still yearn to understand." In the one entry that isn't a virtuosic act of ventriloquism, Butler, it turns out, is speaking for the whole human race.
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