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Lady Chatterley and the Irish Cop : A researcher of street slang combines scholarly and unscholarly pursuits : IN THE CUT, By Susanna Moore (Alfred A. Knopf: $21; 180 pp.)

November 05, 1995|Larissa MacFarquhar | Larissa MacFarquhar is a contributing editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at the Paris Review

In the same feminist circles that came up with the tacky late-'80s term "sex positive," it's a cause of much discontent that there's so little erotica told from the female point of view. The world's seen enough naughty nurses and busty baby-sitters, the complaint goes. How about a few prurient window cleaners? A couple of unshaven terrorists? Susanna Moore's "erotic thriller" "In the Cut" might have been written expressly for this market: for all the bluestockings who get tingly at the sight of Camille Paglia with her big bodyguards.

Moore's unnamed narrator and heroine is a bluestocking who lives in New York, writing books about slang and teaching underachieving teen-agers. She seems to have sex a lot, and imaginative sex, too, involving pantyhose tied around wrists with sailor knots and Cantabrigians wearing shoes. When she's not having sex, thinking about sex or masturbating, she's watching men have oral sex in basements with anonymous redheads. She has achieved an enviable synergy of the professional and the sexual in her life, by combining an interest in street talk with an equally strong interest in its speakers.

Appropriately, for such a heroine, Moore has eschewed sex scenes of the "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" variety (powerful male does helpless, undereducated female employee) and has instead selected from the catalogue of Basic Hetero Porn Plots a few of the Lady Chatterly genre (classy woman does muscular, smelly lower-class man). Thus, erotica for the bookish but sexy upper-middle-class woman who is Moore's likely audience.

For instance, on Page 15 we encounter Basic Hetero Porn Plot No. 7: Heroine is sitting at home alone, writing, when burly, priapic Irish cop rings her doorbell. Then there's Basic Hetero Porn Plot No. 28: Heroine is sitting at home alone, writing, when one of her inner-city, black male teen-age students rings her doorbell. And finally, there's the book's snuff-film denouement with Basic Hetero Porn Plot No. 50: Entwined with all the sex scenes is a murder mystery--hence the cop ("In the Cut" has a lot in common with "Basic Instinct"). The anonymous redhead gets dismembered a few feet from the heroine's front door; then the heroine's wacky friend Pauline is scattered gorily around her Tribeca apartment.

The heroine has reason to suspect that the burly, priapic Irish cop is responsible for all this, but she has sex with him anyway. After all, he has the requisite erotic credentials--drugstore musk cologne, underarm sweat rings, skeezy tattoo, outer-boroughs grammar. And he's a Harvey Keitel kind of cop: a guy with a sensitive side, given to monologues on the philosophy of policing and incongruously self-conscious asides like "It's a cop thing" and "How Washington Heights of me."

Meanwhile, in her time off from sex and death, the heroine is busy compiling a dictionary of street slang--mostly terms for sex and genitalia--which is excerpted in the form of vocabulary lists inserted in the novel. Some of her words are pretty great--"gangsters" for breasts; "knockin' boots" for sex; "to be inflashed" for to be informed--but much of the slang in the lists and indeed in the novel, in general, has a suspiciously Humphrey Bogartish ring to it. Do '90s detectives really call women "broads"? Presumably so; the book's dedication, to "Tommy Hyland, detective 1st grade, NYPD," seems to be a guarantee of authenticity.

"In the Cut" is Moore's fourth novel. Her first, "My Old Sweetheart" (1982), was a beautifully written mother-daughter saga set in Hawaii that won the PEN Ernest Hemingway Citation and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Moore followed it with two mediocre ones--"The Whiteness of Bones" (1989) and "Sleeping Beauties" (1993). "In the Cut" is better than these last two, partly because Moore is good in first-person mode (she used it in sections of "My Old Sweetheart") and partly because she has put aside the Hawaiian-girls-and-tropical-foliage setting that worked so well in her first book but had become increasingly cloying with repetition. (Moore also seems to have jettisoned many of her odd recurrent motifs: unsatisfactory mothers, pubic hair shaved in the shape of a heart, strong-smelling blossoms.)

The post-Hawaii Moore has produced an interesting hybrid of woman-like-me novel and Martin Amis-style urban cartoon (Pauline, for instance, wears dresses made of soda-can pulls and eats nasturtiums). The mix doesn't work, though: the book is too thin to flesh out the woman and the cartoons are too few and too cautious to leaven the novel into a satire along the liens of "Bonfire of the Vanities." In the end, despite her modish commingling of sex, gore and words, Moore becomes so affectionate toward her cartoons that the book turns out surprisingly, and disappointingly, sentimental. As does, incidentally, the definition of "in the cut," for which we wait until the very last pages: "In the cut. From vagina. A place to hide. To hedge your bet. But someplace safe, someplace free from harm."

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