This February, this Valentine's Day, in three works of fiction by three prominent American writers, the game is love, which translates as sex, which translates as trouble, and to start at the bottom line, start with a blow job. You can also end on a blow job (the very same blow job), because that's just what a woman named Kay, age 34 in New York City, after 115 pages, is still up to -- and a mid-30s guy named Benjamin is still up for -- in Susan Minot's new novel Rapture (Knopf).
Minot, though, is an intelligent writer, so it can't be all sex, and it isn't. What it is is a man v. woman thing or, in this case, one man v. one woman and what's at work behind the good/bad sex and what's at stake and what does and doesn't work and why, and it isn't so simple. But "it" is as old as the hills. Old as even the Grand Canyon, which is where, finally spent and in a "vision of emptiness," Benjamin's thoughts turn for once on himself and matters of the spirit -- his "sorrow," his "pain," "how wretched he felt ... how polluted he was ... how bad." Benjamin's (but any reader's foregone) conclusion: "It was fucking sad." ("It" being Benjamin's life.)
Little word from Vanessa, Benjamin's rich fiancée, on the subject of this latest "it," but we do read dozens of pages' worth of paralyzing self-analysis from Kay, Benjamin's one-time production designer on an indie film he directed and his on-again, off-again part-time love interest over the course of three (long) years. Words from Kay on the order of: sex with Benjamin as being "the lure of the abyss" (her emphasis, page 13) to sex with Benjamin as being nothing more than the job of a "whore" (her word, page 36). Until (page whatever) sex with Benjamin becomes a "voluptuous letting go," the whore, by Rapture's end, turned bird in flight and so what with the "old hideousness." (The "hideousness" being several years' worth of crummy behavior on the part of you-know-who.) One question: Who, outside Kay, Benjamin, and the third party in all this, Susan Minot, cares?
Amy Dickerson, age 40, for one, probably couldn't, because A) Amy Dickerson is the very able heroine at the heart of Robert Olen Butler's Fair Warning (Atlantic Monthly Press) and B) Amy Dickerson already has her hands full with: 1) a rich mama's boy who wants to rid his late Upper West Side mama of her prized possessions; 2) a rich Frenchman who wants to buy the venerable New York auction house where Amy acts as star auctioneer and major object of affection; 3) a sister on Long Island in the throes of a possible divorce from her rich husband; and 4) a rich mama of her own who wants to rid her late husband of his prized possessions down in Houston. Who's the collector and who's the collected in all this? You figure it out. It isn't hard. But try figuring this: What's a Pulitzer Prize-winning author doing writing a solid (but still ...) romance novel? The sex quotient: one (zipless?) quickie inside an elevator and, when things really heat up, some serious groping inside a midtown Manhattan limousine, then inside a very well-appointed apartment in the shadow of Paris' Notre Dame. The word for this stuff: limp. Fair warning.
Want Pulitzer-caliber material from a past Pulitzer winner? The real pits, maybe, when it comes to men and women caught in the act of coupling, uncoupling, and generally making a mess but no mess when it comes to solid writing? Go directly to "Abyss," the final (long) short story in Richard Ford's new, across-the-board fine collection of short stories, A Multitude of Sins (Knopf). Late-acting scene-stealer: again the Grand Canyon, again the site to climax a certain someone's spiritual aspirations, but this time the site for that same certain someone's mortal end. On the extended end: a couple of real estate agents, adulterers, both of them on the road and outside Phoenix, and together, separately, the both of them set to figuring this man v. woman thing for themselves, courtesy Ford's absolutely dead-on powers of observation. The couple's answer: no answer.
So leave it to a character named James Wales in "Quality Time" to give it a shot and give it at least a name: "the literature of the failed actuality," where, if experience can't teach us what's what, "someone ... tell us what's important, because we no longer know" (Wales' emphasis, page 25). Someone just like Wales, a journalist by trade spending a few days' time with a certain unhappily married woman inside a room at the Drake hotel in Chicago. Facts Wales can record accurately. Responses? Tabulate them; in their absence, make them up. Invent importance but leave, according to Wales, the incommensurable to novelists. And say the same for a short-story writer like Richard Ford. Bottom line.