Well, this review turned out to be a whole helluva lot harder to write than I thought when I was snorting my way through Ravishing of Lol Stein. This was chosen as a group read for a romance reading group, out of list of capital-L Literature books that are read primarily for their sexual content, stuff like The Story of O and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And my experience ended up being similar to my read of Wifey, another book read primarily for its sexual content, but hoo boy, not because either is romantic in any way. But are stories of unfulfilled housewives, both were unpleasant for me to read, both were chilly and distant, shot through with voyeurism and infidelities of all kinds, and both ended up being much more interesting to consider than to read.
I’ve got a thing for the housewife in literature, I admit. I notice her and watch her, the way she is constructed and commented on. She’s not a component of any romance I can think of, almost the anti-romance in her bones: the foregone conclusion, the morality tale, the warning. (Though maybe remarriage comedies come close – but no, that’s not quite right.) She is inert and motionless, not part of the decisive world of love, but its frusty, decaying aftermath. No romance starts with a housewife, though it may end with one in the oblique. (And, quick aside – this is interesting too. I don’t know the truth of this, but the housewife is the imagined reader of romance novel, who we allude to when we talk about who consumes wish-fulfillment exercises about the domestic. I’ve said this elsewhere, but I think some of the attacks on Twimoms are ad hominem – Twilight is bad, because the readership is bad. You ladies should grow up.)
It’s true that I find her fascinating because if you squint right, I am a housewife. No, yes, of course, I work, and don’t feel defined exclusively by my husband or my family, but the work of child-rearing and house-keeping is still a major component of my personality at this point in my life. I regularly self-define myself as a housewife though, often disingenuously, just because I know it pisses my friends and husband off. No, you’re not a housewife, they eyeroll, you’re smarter than that. Which is the thing to me, ultimately. An almost inextricable part of the definition of housewife is her passivity and lack of intellectual life; hers is an emotional life, protecting the hearth fires so that men, and later (boy) children, can venture out into the important and active world and do important and active things. She looks within so others can act without. She is the font of compassion like Mrs. Ramsay from To The Lighthouse, telling James his bedtime stories so that Mr. Ramsay can contemplate the movement from P to Q. And ultimately, she has no self. She is a role cut out from society and watched like a kettle. Maybe watching will keep it from boiling.
Which is the thing with this novel. This book takes on all of the voyeurism inherent in the housewife narrative – the neighbors watching, the husband watching, the male gazing – and makes it manifest, everyone peeping out from their houses, into windows, imagining observers and observing observers and mirror mirror mirror memory observation mirror mirror. As an intellectual or literary exercise, this book is some bang up stuff. The narrator reads like a man gossiping about himself, and the unsettling shifts to quoted narratives, between the first and third person, between the felt self and observed self were artfully done. The distance this creates, though intentional, is yawning and chilly. There is so much art, there is very little life.
Interesting, I think to myself, how often the narrative of the housewife hinges on voyeurism. Sandy, in Wifey, watching a masturbating motorcyclist watching her window in the first scenes; Carol, from Main Street, the most squirmingly accurate portrayal of a housewife to me, fighting the blind-holding gossips; and the most tactile voyeur of them all, Humbert Humbert, watching like a pov slasher killer Delores Haze and her immortal daughter, Lolita, from inside the house, like the murderer he was. I felt the fingerprints of Lolita all over this story, down to Lola’s own name. But there’s other things as well: the road trip, the beach where Lol’s insanity is born mirroring Humbert’s beach side dalliances that he (partially, lyingly) blames for his derangement, the endless descriptions of Lol’s slenderness, the repeated phrase that she is a “grown-up schoolgirl”. Lol is a collapsed character, melding both Delores Haze and her daughter Lolita, with annihilating results. There is no center to hold here, no self beyond the observed one, no housewife but the one seen from without. And, speaking from the inside, maybe that’s the only place where one can see her, can see me. I, we housewives exist in observation. Without it, we are only ourselves, and that is nothing at all.
Hot damn, I have been infected by all this glacial unknowing. Because hear this: I laughed through this book. There’s a lot here that feels stupid and dated, calculated, deliberately unreal. The narrator regularly refers to himself in the third person: Jack Hold did this; Jack Hold did that. I had this annoying friend who would refer to himself as Hershel Walker, who I think was a football player for the Vikings, because Hershel Walker did that all the time. Hershel Walker threw the game. Hershel Walker gives 110%. Hershel Walker does not use the first person because Hershel Walker is too important for that. So when Jack does it, I laugh. Lol Stein’s name unfortunately reads to me as LOL Stein, which is an accident of history, I know. Lol! Then there is the dialogue, which is art film wankery up the ass all day. There is no person on earth who talks like this, let alone a gaggle of them speaking past each other. I wanted to shake them all, shake them until their necks snapped, pour blood on the dining room table, scream. Bunch of fucking phonies.
I also thought of the Gothic novel, that panic of the domestic, the castle rotting from within by secrets kept and marshaled by women even if they are perpetrated by men. These books of the housewife write the details of their enclosures as closely as they do the housewives themselves; the housewife as landscape; the housewife as nature documentary. There’s an epic catalog of her houses in literature: Mrs. Ramsay’s closed doors and open windows, Mrs. Haze’s petty bourgeois taste, Carol’s failed parties in a Chinese theme, Mrs. Dalloway’s narrow bed and her famous flowers, Sandy’s chart documenting the shits of her dog. (I’m leaving off Oedipa Maas, because I’m not sure she’s a woman.) Maybe we will learn something from her furniture, from her gardens, but then it turns out the gardens and draperies are for show, just like everything else. They are cultivated for observation. Look, look, look. Fuck, I don’t know. This book has defeated me with its distance, all this talk of love by people who are liars. Liars! Almost nothing said by anyone about any feeling at all made sense to me. Aliens.
So, yeah, I’m glad I read it, but I’m equally happy to be done with it. Oh, and far as sex writing goes, this is a cold affair, the erotic of the oblique, and very little of it stirred me. There were a few scenes with Lol sleeping in a rye field below the hotel window where her friends were enacting their dubious love affair that were beautiful, but every time someone kissed someone else, I recoiled. Gross. Maybe you either watch or touch, maybe you look but don’t touch, that old saw about women not being visually oriented in their desires. Maybe not.