Thursday, August 21, 2014

Talking to Ourselves, But Who Is Listening?

Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves

"It's true, pleasure brings hope."



The photogenic, talented, and prolific Andrés Neuman--born in Buenos Aires in 1977 and currently living in Granada--has created a wrenching series of disjunctive voices in Talking to Ourselves. Mario is married to Elena and dying of cancer; Lito is their ten-year-old son. The novel reprises monologues by each character, though the strongest and clearest voice belongs to Elena, a complex, literate woman who both grieves for and betrays her dying husband. I was reminded of operatic recitative as I tried to fit together the contrasting voices: it is as if the trio were standing on stage at the same time, but, in the conventional manner of operatic performance, none of the three is at all aware of the presence, never mind the feelings and actions, of the other two. Mario appears to have no awareness of his wife's unhappiness; Elena'a sorrow for Mario's dying is genuine, but it also disguises the disappointments in her own life; and poor Lito, shunted about like a loyal poodle, is deceived by both his mother and father. Near the end of the novel, Lito is effectively written out of the story, which seemed to me an unsatisfying way to deal with a character who had no real role in the story's unwinding.  Neuman is a fine stylist--but I was puzzled by the story's premise, by the notion that three people could have so little knowledge of one another's hearts, and, frankly, so little interest in knowing anything at all about those whom they purport to love.

Then again, why should I have been surprised by the isolation and loneliness of the characters? Isn't this the rule--in families, among friends, between strangers? We talk, but who listens? Perhaps in my summer stupor I've misjudged Neuman's book and misunderstood the novel's core contention: it isn't that we speak to ourselves, it's that we only speak to ourselves.

This next part is about sex.

Apart from the plot--its deficiencies or illogic--I was struck by the fact that Neuman writes about human sexuality better than any writer I've read in a long time, maybe ever. I won't name the couple so as not to spoil the story, and I won't quote the loveliest blue passages, but I will say that at the heart of the novel are long erotic meditations that are both raw and aesthetically stirring. I confess that when I read the "older American stylists" (Roth, Mailer, Updike, and their ilk) I am embarrassed by the ham-handed way in which they depict the sex act--I won't have been the first to notice how phallocentric, laughable, and unbelievable the lovemaking or just plain fucking are in any number of novels, and not only those by older men.  Let's face it, writing about sex without producing pornography is difficult--Henry Miller was, of course, a lecher, but at least Sexus was joyful; coitus in P. Roth often seems like hard work and seldom is erotic, at least to my way of thinking. 

On vacation this past month, and on a whim, I picked up a Gillian Flynn novel to get me through an airplane ride.  I thought, "How bad can it be?" Here's page 12; the speaker is Amy Elliott: "He is the kind of guy who carries himself like he gets laid a lot, a guy who likes women, a guy who would actually fuck me properly. I would like to be fucked properly!...The Fitzgerald fellows tend to be ineffectually porny in bed, a lot of noise and acrobatics to very little end. The finance guys turn rageful and flaccid. The smart-boys fuck like they're composing a piece of math-rock...I sound quite slutty, don't I?" How bad? Very.  Does this passage sound realistic? Probably. More to the point, does it sound literary? I've just met Amy and already I think: she's seen too many movies, is too fond of stereotypes, is too full of herself.

But Neuman: here's someone who knows his way around a human body: "Tradition has it that sex results in the little death. I now believe those who say [they] haven't experienced the pleasure of harm. Because with [x] I find the opposite is true: each fuck results in resurrection. We insult each other. We tear into each other. We cause each other pain in order to make sure we are still here. And each time we reaffirm the other's presence, the other's suffering, we are as moved as if it were a reunion. Then I have orgasms that stretch the limits of my existence. As though my existence were a vaginal muscle. I want to avenge myself on my own flesh." There's much in these pages that is raw, even shocking--but also real and beautiful. Neuman's novel, ultimately, is about the body--its decay, its death, its resurrection.

George Ovitt 8/21/14

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