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Book Review : Low-Energy Look at Female Sexuality

September 19, 1988|CAROLYN SEE

Men by Margaret Diehl (Sarabande/Soho: $17.95; 282 pages)

This is a novel tyrannized by its cover, its title, and its promotional blurbs. Men ! My goodness. That title, considering the book is written by a woman, promises something pretty specific. The blurb announces: "Margaret Diehl joins the thin rank of women writers who have dared to embrace the subject of the feminine self, of true female sexuality, and women's attitudes toward the men whom they let into their lives. . . ." And the cover--a fine one--is the drawn close-up of a woman's face looking bizarre and askance: Yikes! is the silent message here. Holy-moly! Men! Wow!

But "Men," the actual novel, is languid and low-energy; a very quiet story of a girl who picks up men for a while: "After Zeke I became more aggressive and often made the first move myself. I can't remember the things I said; they would just rise to my lips while I concentrated in delight, on the sensation, prickly, melting, and somehow aesthetic, that told me I had found someone suitable. I was very selective, though the criteria were unconscious." Now, isn't that the most prim, well-brought-up description of a life of promiscuity you've read in a long time?

One thing you can say about the succession of men is that they have very fancy names: Teo, Tobias, Zeke, Rudy, Vince, Nathan. Not until the book is well advanced do we meet Frank, who is a good guy and a regular fellow. Before Frank, we meet George, whom the narrator keeps around as a kind of medical convenience: "He put his mouth on my hot skin, drawing out the pain of the hangover. It felt as if his lips were sinking into my flesh, probing each cell for its wrongness and righting it. The medicine of the kiss healed me; then the kiss grew stronger, bringing me the exquisite sensual joy of the queen of the roses sucked by a bee. . . . My mind barely existed; it was a cup to hold my pleasure, with feeble threads of memory latticing out into the gloom."

After all this comes a sexual act, very dimly described, and then George remarks, with rather more self-abnegation than would seem to be called for, "Cured your hangover, did I? It's nice to know I have a function in life."

What we have here, then, is a kind of ongoing monologue about "guys": As in, first I went out with this one, then I went out with that one. There's no particular plot, simply the telling of how things "are," how they seem to be. Stella, the narrator, lives with her grandmother. Her parents have abandoned her. One of the men she goes out with, Tobias (see above), she falls in love with, but--wouldn't you know it--he turns out to be bisexual; more accurately, gay. Once again Stella has been abandoned. And her life of sexuality isn't working out so well, either: Orgasms in this novel are scarce, very very scarce.

So despite the blurbs, the title, the cover, this novel supplies another answer to the oft-asked question, "What do women want?" It might not be just men after all, the author suggests. It might be, more accurate to say love, home, family, admiration, stability, nature, a sweet domestic life, a long-lost brother, a nice house, clean sheets, and so on. Of course, this information is not exactly new.

In a questionnaire about a decade ago, a huge group of men and women were asked to name their favorite pastimes. "Sex" came in first for men and ninth for women. Esquire magazine sardonically suggested that for women, "sex" came in after "making green Jell-O and folding brown paper bags." Diehl doesn't go quite that far, but she sees men as something between mustard plasters and sectional couches. They're around to make you feel better, and you can't set up a perfect home without one.

Women may smile at this novel; men for their own mental health, might want to pass on this one.

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