Past Perfect Review: Lust and Other Stories

LUST AND OTHER STORIES
Stories by Susan Minot
Review by Sara Lippmann
Issue No. 10 – December 2015

When I was 22 I knew a guy, a magazine writer a handful of years my senior with whom I’d become friendly during a summer internship. He gave me a present: a used paperback he’d discovered on one of those book-for-a-buck tables along Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side. I was in the market for a mentor and boom, here was a token of his: beloved grad school professor, Susan Minot.

He called me Lippface and handed it over. I took one look at the cover of Lust and judged. The artwork featured some chick in a ponytail (was that a scrunchie?), big hoops and faded jeans, the colors a Tama Janowitz blend of electric blues and yellows and pinks. The slim volume contained fewer than 150 pages. The font was large, the sentences short. I mean, didn’t he know I had serious aspirations?

I wasn’t long for magazines. An editorial assistant at an established glossy, about the best gig I could have landed as an aimless lit major out of college, I was restless. I had a roach-infested ground floor studio whose rent I could barely afford, shared only with a black cat that pounced on the resilient critters, leaving behind the kindling of their match-thin limbs. At work, I answered the mail and the phone and replaced the toner cartridges, but I was writing. Writing more than I expected, ratcheting up clips, but I was a chameleon, determined to meld my style with the editorial voice of the publication. On the one hand, the disappearing act taught my young self about character, about inhabiting voices unlike my own; on the other hand it felt false, trying to infuse my lines with the cool nonchalance and swagger of our male lifestyle brand. Who was I? I was hungry for something else.

Then I read Lust and it changed my course. The book cracked me open. It was sad in a way that I knew in the depths of my bones: Minot’s sensibility was one I understood intrinsically. She did not hide behind ornate language but laid out her thoughts unvarnished on the page. They beat without apology. Here were sentences so crisp as to feel almost unwritten; stories at once startling and yet, oddly familiar. My heart charged with new energy. More, I wanted to write fiction.

I always knew I loved fiction, but up to this point my interest had been somewhat superficial, my infatuation childish, naïve. One note, if you will. Writing for me was primarily about the musicality of words, the rise and fall of lines on a page. I’d spent four years in college drunk on language in a school itself drunk on language, where rhythm and style reigned supreme at the expense of urgency, where I could not get enough of Carole Maso, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf (and in Ireland, Beckett and Joyce), but I didn’t understand the first thing about craft—or how to tell a captivating story.

Here was Minot: unconcerned with lush prose or long sentences or linguistic pyrotechnics. Her voice felt refreshingly plain. But—let me be clear—not simple. To the contrary, her work is deceptively complex. Unadorned. Authentic. Above all, hers. The title story, “Lust,” captured female sexuality at a certain age, which I experienced as a reversal and rejection of Harold Brodkey’s indulgent “Innocence.” Minot wrote with precision, without sentimentality. When I read her, it was as if I had been waiting my whole life for this, and so off I went to find myself and lose myself and fail and fail better and claw and scrape wildly through the literary muck of it all.

When my story collection Doll Palace was published last fall, more than 15 years later after my first Minot encounter, I heard from that initial writer/friend who’d sent me down this dark and crooked path, whom I had to credit—or blame—for my leaving magazines, for going to an MFA program, and all the rest. I thanked him. We exchanged books. I started to think about Lust again. Would it hold up?

I revisited my dog-eared, underlined, much-loved paperback. Minot’s style invites imitation, and has been copied so much by contemporaries that I found some of the raw purity and starkness that rattled me all those years ago a bit stale, deflated. I, too, am guilty of cheap pastiche, and have attempted to ape that tricky second-person direct address, a point of view more often annoying than intimate. (Thankfully, my Lust-like story lies on the cutting floor.) But, still. However “done” it felt in places, there are lessons to glean.

***

Sex is inextricable from character.

Okay, it’s embarrassing to admit I had to learn this from a book when duh, human beings are first and foremost sexual in nature, but this is one of the first places where I saw sex played out in a manner that felt blunt and honest and real, that spoke to me and all the ugly, awkward truths about interaction. All too often, sex scenes are coated in a veneer that feels put on, full of itself, which plenty of people may gobble up but that irks me. I get cranky towards sex writing that sounds in love with itself, tangled up in its own poetics. Because sex isn’t poetry—a lot of the time. Sex is as basic as shitting eating sleeping. Just because everyone does it doesn’t make it interesting. Just because everyone does it doesn’t justify a blown-out scene. Where sex becomes interesting and instrumental is where it helps define who we are and who we want to be, fueling our identity and steering our actions and decisions in the world. Sex establishes a locus of power. How does this dynamic affect the character, what does it say about her and the world, how does sex reflect her outlook on a shifting landscape?

“They turn, casually, to look at you, distracted, and get a mild distracted surprise. You’re gone. Their blank look tells you that the girl they were fucking is not there anymore. You seem to have disappeared.”

***

Own your voice.

From Minot I learned to check my bullshit meter, and to embrace first-person narration, particularly the illusion it creates, as if parting a curtain and drawing the reader into a private world. There is an intimacy to her voice, unsettlingly close, that I admire. Minot does not waver. There is no benefit in hiding what you want to say in long, circuitous sentences. Like many young writers, hopped up on language and painfully inexperienced, my tendency was to overwrite. My prose was like that garishly overdressed prepubescent cousin at the wedding. Short sentences are powerful and direct. They get down to business. I went on to discover writers like Rachel Sherman and Grace Paley, who do not shy away from confrontation or unease. Writers with voices that make it clear muscularity is not reserved for men.

***

Mine the well between thought and action.

“Eat your supper, I wanted to say, or Take me home and make me better, but instead I nodded and looked—I don’t know—away.” Sentences like this, which show both incredible self-awareness and self-doubt, abound in Minot, revealing the disconnect between thought and action, exposing the contradictions of human nature and the human heart. They are forever compelling to me.

***

Exercise restraint.

Get in; get out. Chisel. The fewer words, the better. If you go for imagery, select one that does double-duty, deepening the reader’s understanding of that character. Heaping on the similes or metaphors can be distracting, and detract from the story. Be precise.

There is power in white space. In what is left unsaid. Not everything needs to be written out, every flashback fleshed in. Minot’s story, “Sparks,” exemplifies this. The narrator has been mentally unwell, hospitalized, had a boyfriend likely much older who’d moved away for law school, but the intricacies of their relationship, the catalyst of her breakdown, is unknown. It has something to do with him, with her, but the rest is open, a wound. That’s where the reader comes in. In a recent New Yorker essay entitled “Omission,” John McPhee writes about selection, about dialing back authorial intrusion.             “The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters,” McPhee writes. “The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.”

***

It is okay to put demands on the reader.

Strictly, I didn’t learn this from Minot. In college I fell deep for the modernists, authors who made you work and wrestle and unpack their prose, which I found exciting and challenging, like tackling a huge puzzle. But this was different. If it was a thrill to discover the accessibility of Joyce and Stein upon close reading, in the case of Minot, it was almost the opposite. Judging from the thin packaging, her work didn’t strike me as particularly literary. Which is what makes her fiction that much more deceptive. My shallow assumption—from the cover to the content—domestic, quotidian, straightforward sentence structure, was this would be easy stuff. I was wrong. Minot’s stories possess that rare quality of a living, breathing organism, where you are not done after finishing; rather, the last page is an invitation to begin again, to recapture and tease out the complexities that might have been overlooked on a surface read. There is constantly more to find. It is this imperative, this demand not just to be read, but also reread, that I still find enchanting after all these years.

Lust and Other Stories
Susan Minot
Vintage
160 pages, $10.94


Sara Lippmann received a B.A. from Brown and an MFA from The New School. Her stories have been published in Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland, Jewish Fiction, The Good Men Project, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and included in wigleaf’s Top 50. Her debut collection, Doll Palace, was longlisted for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.





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