Maureen Gibbon's 'Thief' makes sex boring
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Maureen Gibbon's new novel is an interesting failure. In the days since I finished reading it, I've been thinking and thinking -- mostly about why writing about sex really is so dicey.
Suzanne is Ms. Gibbon's thirtysomething protagonist, a school teacher who has rented a cabin for the summer in rural Minnesota to get away from her life and to think. The cabin itself is rented to her by a gentlemanly old guy who gives Suzanne a deal that even a teacher can afford, and so she sets about her days swimming in the lake and enjoying the quiet while briefly contemplating the latest in her string of bad boyfriends.
That is Suzanne's life -- teaching and having sex-charged relationships with one jerk after another.
As it happens, though, even in retreat she reinforces old habits by placing a singles ad in the local weekly. When one of the responses arrives in the form of a letter from an inmate at the state prison, Suzanne embarks on a correspondence-turned-friendship with Alpha Breville, a convicted rapist.
This provides her a strange opportunity (so we're told) to come to grips with the aftermath of having been raped as a teenager.
Before I get into the sex part, I must stop to point out that the setup itself fairly stank of "Only in Novels Syndrome."
Only in Novels do people rent a cabin to "get away and think." Only in Novels do teachers just happen upon an old man willing to rent a summer cabin for practically free. Only in Novels does a rape survivor answer an inmate's letter, only to find out that his crime is rape.
And Only in Novels does the rapist-inmate turn out to be, well, kinda sexy! And alluring! And contrite!
CAN all these things happen in real life? Of course, but as a novelist friend recently noted, the bar is higher for fiction than for life. And so, as I read along, instead of being completely swept up in the story, I found myself noticing the writer.
I watched her twist and manipulate circumstances so that her story met the demands of possibility while never quite achieving plausibility.
Now for the sex. Suzanne, as a first-person narrator, has had lots of it and all kinds, and because the theme of the book is rape, we get to read all about it. We read details of the rape itself, but also about past boyfriends and current flings (Gibbon works a lonesome cowboy into the plot, too) and we get to read details of Suzanne's experience with self-managed orgasm as she explains it to her inmate-rapist friend.
Ms. Gibbon's approach is to let Suzanne speak frankly -- and often, very often -- using a mix of slang and anatomically precise language. This is the sort of writerly decision that teaches the reader something about herself.
For instance, it turns out that there's a limit to how many times I'm willing to read the word "vulva" in a novel. That number is something less than five.
Oddly, Ms. Gibbon's repeated attempt at writing in a grown-up, unsentimental way about sex also had the effect of making me appreciate the straightforwardness of pornography. Pornography exists to entertain, just as clinical language exists to allow the clinician language to address medical issues.
What to do with the semi-serious hybrid we find here? What to do with the sexual fixations of a character in a novel that isn't pornographic?
Philip Roth has answered that question in his own way, although Mr. Roth's characters have more going on than Ms. Gibbon's Suzanne.
In other words, the problem with "Thief" wasn't so much the TMI as it was the too-little-else going on in Suzanne's life. There isn't a single female character besides the protagonist or a single meaningful friend. She's devoid of family and family history. We're told she reads, but literature is strangely absent in this English teacher's world.
By the time most people hit 30, they've known people who have been single-mindedly fixated on sex or drugs or booze or meeting a soul mate. News flash: It's boring. And so, in the end, is Suzanne.
It's important to add that Ms. Gibbon is a talented writer, well equipped to plumb her characters' psychological depths. Her storytelling chops structure, pacing, suspense -- are well-honed. She should let them loose on better material.
First Published June 27, 2010 12:00 am