Monday, February 01, 2010

Sex and the novel, cont.

My claim is that, since some time in the first decades of the twentieth century—after the best work of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, that is—American novelists have narrowed the idea of sex to genital friction. There is a hilarious parody of this tendency in Primitive People, Francine Prose’s 1992 novel about moneyed WASP’s in the Hudson River Valley.

Rosemary Porter has been invited to her cousin’s wedding to a Sufi homeopath. The ceremony is being held in a barn. The horses are left in their paddocks. The minister, “a round-faced young woman with a helmet of yellow hair,” introduces herself to the wedding guests as “the ninety-fifth woman to be ordained by the Congregational Church of New York.”

When the bridal couple came to see her, the minister relates, she knew at once that the marriage would succeed. “It may not be a popular thing to say nowadays,” she says. “But what made me so certain was that I could sense immediately a powerful current of sexual attraction.”

The guests freeze in embarrassment, but the minister fails to notice. The bride, she goes on, explained that the groom is “a homeopath everywhere but in bed. She said that bed was one place where he definitely does not think that less is more.”

Rosemary tries to cover her six-year-old daughter’s ears. The minister plows ahead, regardless. A barn is the perfect setting for such a wedding, she says, because it serves “to remind us of that stronger, more urgent river flowing beneath what we, perhaps foolishly, call civilization.”

The guests hold their collective breath for fear that exhaling might lead to even more revelations.

When the time comes to exchange vows, however, what really upsets the women in attendance is the bride’s promise to love, honor, and obey her new husband. They are far more outraged at the thought of “female obedience making a comeback” than at the boastful shrinking of conjugal eros to plenty of action in bed.


Anonymous said...

You probably already saw this, but in case you didn't...

Coheres w/ your complaints about Lish.