Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Stephen McCauley - Alternatives to sex

Stephen McCauley. Alternatives to sex. London: Granta, 2006


A story about William, a real estate agent who takes a vow of celibacy which he proves to be very poor at keeping. The novel is essentially about sex and real estate. At one stage a character says 'real estate is the sex of the new millennium'. There are numerous references to 9/11, especially in the early stages of the novel, as though trying to establish some moral compass.

It doesn't work. I try to stop myself from reacting badly to novels – they’re only bloody books – but this nonsense has made me seriously annoyed. This is witless, soulless, humourless drivel masquerading as a novel. It is described on the dustjacket by someone called Elinor Lipman as ‘genius at work, but genius of the best, most readable kind: witty, lovable and so amazingly smart about love in many forms’. It is none of those. My writing is a million miles closer to genius than this shit, and I do not believe I am blowing my own trumpet in saying so. It is simply a measure of how dismal this book is.

Okay, I get the fact that the author is parodying those who have vacuous lives, and who say, as one character does, ‘Do you think it’s easy to sell art since September eleventh?’ Yes, I get that. I see that he is trying to show that the concerns expressed by these pampered people were shallow. Of course. But the problem I have is that the author’s work is, itself, equally vacuous and shallow. The main character is forced into a moral decision at the end which feels entirely author-driven and doesn’t derive from the plot. The whole novel is smothered by an air of superciliousness, of ephemerality, of vapidity. It purports to be a love story and yet there is no love. Right at the end, the main says to his lover, ‘You’ve been at the center of [my life] for years now. I’m sorry I didn’t realize it sooner.’ But this is just the problem: he couldn’t realise it, because the fact wasn’t there until the plot demanded it.

So what do we have? We have a novel which cut and pastes a few glib references to 9/11 in order to establish some moral high ground, which mocks the hypocricy of a certain breed of Americans’s responses to 9/11, and then feeds us a shallow, emotion-lite piece of pap, sugared by feelgood-feelbad nine-elevenry. And this is what makes me so annoyed about this novel. It is nothing but surface. It pretends to say something but in the end says nothing. It uses 9/11 as a smokescreen to hide the fact there is only emptiness where the heart – or ‘spirituality’, to use its favourite word – should lie. 9/11: its impact on America was what? Let’s examine what this novel tells us, by way of quotes.

Firstly, a couple of characters make comments (so give the author some latitude – these are his characters talking, not him:

‘Humility is completely out of favor these days.’ [p. 96]

‘…[I’m going to write] an analysis of the spiritual soul of America in the wake of September eleventh... I’ve been looking down my very long nose at American consumerism for years, but now that I’ve embraced it, I understand it completely. It’s always been marvelous, but it needed a rationale. Now it has one: shop your way to a feeling of safety and security… Struck from above by a dastardly enemy and the response is an encouragement to visit Disneyland, buy bigger cars, and then launch an attack on a country unrelated to the problem.’ [p. 202-203]

Okay, got that? Shallowness and glibness, that’s the American way. But no, not necessarily. How about this?

Since the tragedy of the preceeding September, everyone I knew was trying to choose between combating the collective evil of manking by putting sefishness aside and doing good, and abandoning altruism altogether and doing whatever it took to feel good. Right now. [p. 5-6]


Hmm, ambivalent. A bit good, a bit bad. Let’s have some more, then, and see if we can work out what this novel is saying:

Everyone I knew felt they had, for the first time in their pampered lives, a mission, but no one knew what it was. [p.6]

Everyone I knew had felt a sudden need for reassuring moral absolutes, for patriotism, for righteousness. [p. 6]


So, maybe the novel is telling us that there was a moral response to 9/11. Let’s explore some more:

Since the previous September, people were willing to give serious consideration to taking what they could get while they could get it, even if they had no idea what they planned to do with it. [p. 49]


Oh dear, back to the shallow end.

Since last September, every middle-aged person I knew had decided to work on aging with grace and dignity. In light of what had happened, who would be shallow enough to even consider facial surgery or cosmetic injections? But thus far, none of my friends had perfected the plans for dignity. p. 72


Back up to the deep end again. Confusing this, isn’t it? What is the author trying to say? Maybe it’s all just about sex, then, since that is what most of the book is about:

Aggressive father figures seemed to have a special appeal since the previous September. [p. 32]


But maybe not:

‘...Sex. Does anyone care anymore? I doubt it. It’s all so pretragedy, twentieth century, isn’t it? You were very prescient to stay above the [end p. 273] bodily fray. It’s all about real estate now. Real estate is the sex of the new millennium.’ [p. 273-274]


You see? Now maybe, of course, there was an ambivalence about the American response to 9/11. Sure. But it is the job of a novel to come to some conclusion. This is just a mixture of glib, asinine, ill-conceived and poorly constructed shit. As the immortal Johnny Rotten once said to America, ‘d’you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’

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