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Book Review : Catching the Worm in a Funny State

September 03, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Group Sex by Ann Arensberg (Knopf: $15.95, 175 pp.)

Frances Girard is a worm. Not by her own admission; by her own proclamation. She glories in it. She has discovered the lyric qualities of the worm state, and carols them in silvery tones. Those who step on her--and in "Group Sex," everybody does--feel their shoes turn luminous and float away.

You can regard meek Frances' account of her affair with the tempestuous theatrical prodigy, Paul Treat, as a novel about a worm's turning. Truth to tell, it is only a shred of a novel; and the final vermiform turn is an implausible afterthought, the merest twitch. The ruling charm in Ann Arensberg's spoof of one corner of New York's high culture is Frances' quavery piping.

She is an editor at a small and absent-minded publishing house. Edie, her friend from childhood, bosses her around. Madeline, her landlady, sends her on errands. Paul, the lion of the avant-garde, uses her as cook, valet, mirror, ministering angel and mattress.

"I may be a worm," Frances reflects, "but I am not a grudging worm." The reflection comes when she is rubbing Madeline's feet. "Always a rubber, that was Frances' lot," Arensberg tells us, "always a rubber, never a rubbee." She was famous for it in college; people would line up.

"Frances liked rubbing as well as any hobby. It gave her a role to play in that small community, like head of the dorm, or fire chief or editor of the yearbook. Rubbing feet gave her a protective cover; if everyone knew what she did, they would not try to guess who she was."

Frances is fragile, candid and instantly responsive. Other people are heavy brooms, purposefully sweeping. She is a dust-ball who flies immediately into the air at their passage; so immediately, in fact, that she evades being swept, and floats down again after they have passed. Her witness survives, and it is very funny.

The story is pretty much a matter of her taking up with Paul and finding herself alternately delighted and appalled by his domineering eccentricities. He directs "Peer Gynt" on stilts, and insists that she play the sex object in a series of improvisations he is working out on such themes as rape-incest, shoe fetishes and necrophilia. She flees back to the more domesticated domineering of her friends. At the end, she returns to Paul and learns to match him in eccentricity and assertiveness. At least we are told so, though we don't see it and don't really believe it.

No matter. The plot is too slight to get in the way. The main flaw with "Group Sex" is that Paul's free-spirited flamboyance gets tiresome as we go along; and Frances' helpless certainty that liberation lies with him occasionally threatens to make her tedious as well.

Still, Arensberg gets some fun out of her avant-garde playwright, whose contempt for the mechanics of the established theater attracts a cult following and backers with big checkbooks. I particularly like the account of the young critic who, swept up in the mystique, abandons criticism and goes to join a mime company.

The literary world gets some engaging treatment as well. There is the Graham Greene-like Augustus Stafford, who has graduated from simple thrillers to thrillers with a high metaphysical content and a concern with the problem of evil. And there is the editor who prides himself on belonging to the inner literary circles. Norman Mailer had socked him in the stomach, Saul Bellow on the arm. William Styron had pulled his hair. "No wonder Allan Schieffman practiced chin-ups in his office doorway," Frances notes. "He needed to be fit to endure the brutal world of letters."

For most of the time, besotted or in flight, Frances is a fairly sustained delight. She is a stream of unexpected connections and sudden jolts. Cream of Wheat she may appear, but you keep biting down on rock salt. There is a comical self-possession in the most extreme of her collapses. Here she is going back to her office after a conference to take a phone call from Paul, who hadn't been speaking to her for some time.

"Frances should have been racing to her office like an eager lover. Instead, she paused at the water fountain to have a drink. She stopped to read the fire-drill regulations and a notice announcing charter flights to Zurich."

After one of the longer ruptures with Paul, she pours her heart out to her friends, and then notices how unsatisfactory this is. "In spite of the adage," she reflects, "confession is bad for the soul. It weakens the will and gives rise to undignified gossip."

This is more than comedy. It is social comedy; and in "Group Sex," Arensberg has given us an unusually engaging example of the species.

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