For Susan Minot's young women, entreaty is a one-way street. Men entreat them meltingly.
"They look at you seriously, their eyes at a low burn and their hands no matter what starting off shy and with such a gentle touch that the only thing you can do is take that tenderness and let yourself be swept away."
The speaker in "Lust," the title story of this collection, is winding up her litany of male neediness and of all the different times it has ravaged her. For her, entreaty is irresistible. For Minot's men, on the other hand, it is unbearable.
When Meg, in the story "Ile Seche," grows dizzy climbing a steep hill, her lover steadies her for an instant and then strides ahead, frozen. Her need is a threat; so is her sensibility. He can point out the view from the hill but when she asks him to notice the light as well, it crowds him.
The stories in "Lust" are sketches and vignettes that embroider a single theme. Between the sexes in the urban, educated and affluent set, the woman's lot is as bad as it's ever been and maybe worse. It is not only entreaty that is a one-way street; it is sex as well.
Sex, as the title indicates, is what the transactions are all about. It makes a constricted focus, not amenable to much development. The energy and individuality of Minot's sentences are remarkable, as they were in her first book, "Monkeys." There, they illuminated the life, rhythms and death of a family. Here they have much less to work on.
The perceptions of Minot's young protagonists are so seamless in their up-to-the-minute state of awareness as to approach brainwashing. Yet the point of their morality tales is old-fashioned--which is not a fault--and tinnily repetitive--which is. "It was great, and don't call me, I'll call you," it goes or, more plainly, "Men were deceivers ever."
Repetition works best in the title story. The speaker, in her late teens, gives us a list of a dozen or so boys with whom she has had sex at boarding school, a place that has more than a passing resemblance to Minot's own school, Concord Academy. The tone is as dispassionate and precise as Bret Easton Ellis' or Jay McInerney's, but Minot, a far better writer, has a quiet wavering that lets pain show through.
Her notes on each boy are clinical, like a lab record or an FBI surveillance report. She speaks of "the first one I ever saw nude," annotates the looks of different boys' genitals, discusses their techniques. There is a distance between each encounter and her feelings; a familiar literary coolness.
What is less familiar and where the wavering begins, is when she turns to the feelings themselves. The distance is now between the feelings and the "I." "He had a halo from the campus light behind him. I flipped." That should be headlong--"I flipped" is shorthand for "I was passionately thrilled"--but it isn't. "I" has lost the sovereignty not only of her body (she cannot withhold herself because she hates "teases") but also of what she feels.
Only at the end of the list and the notes does sovereignty begin to trickle back. "You start to get tired. You begin to feel diluted like watered-down stew," she tells us. "After sex, you curl up like a shrimp, something deep inside you ruined, slammed in a place that sickens at slamming. . . ."
The recognition could be glib. Something perfectly familiar has happened; the girl has been used, has cooperated, and regrets it. To be able to voice the regret is something, though; perhaps a first step out of anomie. And the discrimination of Minot's voice gives this first step a promising energy.
The glibness is greater, and the energy of the voice less, in many of the other pieces. The girl is now a young woman a few years out in the world. She is several different young women, in fact, but the same thing keeps happening to her. The men are older, more experienced, more powerful. They reach out to their quarry and take possession; when the woman tries to reach back, they move off.
It is hard to distinguish some of these stories from each other. The men that figure in them could just about be the same man. And the young women are all hurt in more or less the same way: by thinking that their lovers' attention promises a mutual relationship and finding out that it doesn't.
Each ends with a mordant incident or reflection; a kind of ironic kicker intended to clinch the point, but which makes it slighter and more obvious. In "Ile Seche," for instance, Meg--a young actress vacationing with a successful producer--thinks of the motorboats in the harbor, and reflects:
"She would not be coming home in one piece after all. She would be run over, chopped up by a propeller, an innocent swimmer in what she knew were dangerous waters."