August 2014

Rachel Cole Dalamangas

fiction

My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson

In Susan Johnson's My Hundred Lovers, a woman named Deborah reflects on her fifty years by counting her "lovers," among them an impossibly handsome artist, her brother, her mother's fingernails, a house, her husband, a cigarette, and so on. It is an account of a woman's existence told through the sensual faculties of the body. What emerges from this novel of collages, fragments, and sentences is a flesh-deep rendering of contemporary life from the perspective of a woman, told in a woman's voice. The body-ness inherent to the world Johnson conjures is political as much as aesthetic: the reader receives an account of the semi-surreal occurrence of lactating breasts, the glee of no-strings sex with a man on his way out of town, the strangeness and excitement of kissing other women, the biological torture of teenager-hood, and early sexual experiences that don't involve horror-movie quantities of virgin blood.

The clever move Johnson makes in the telling of Deborah's story is the linguistic exploration of the concept of a "lover," and by default Johnson phenomenologically explores the essence of love itself. The "I" becomes "the girl" becomes "the Suspicious Wanderer." Loving and being loved are acts of words as much as experiences. Subjects and objects are subtly exchanged.

Thus, Johnson's project is language and she presents the opposite problem of so-called "dirty realism." Johnson tells a stripped down, bold, and bodily version of reality from a distinctly female point of view. She triumphs by giving the reader a lifelike, raw rendering of what it's like to live in a female body saturated with sensations and emotions. Johnson's sentences are often thrillingly minimalist just as they are explosive with sensuality.

Unexpectedly, in a novel that delves into the meditative (the term "prose poetry" might operate well here), the plot in the final third of the book takes a surprising narrative turn. There is also a poignant and understated exploration of history. Deborah's family members are "bit players" in history -- her father once got drunk with Muhammad Ali, for example. Her predecessors have good stories, but have yet to achieve "greatness," in short. While reflecting in her marital bed on an older friend's gig driving British elites around during WWII, Deborah drifts into another kind of reverie: "...while above our heads a spaceship reached Neptune and in Berlin the statues of Lenin came down. The world was roaring but we were deaf, dumb and blind to everything but each other's breathing faces." From the exquisite and starkly contemporary portrayal of simultaneous plots carrying on in a big, riotous world, love emerges as realer and more pivotal to human history than political strife and advanced technology. This is a sentiment shared in such marvelous and original terms that it is surprisingly (and thankfully) un-precious.

Crucially, Johnson poses a highly nuanced question about seduction as a process of art. Stranger and bleaker scenes, for example, early explorations of genitalia with a younger brother and the loss of an unfaithful husband are related in gorgeous and even what we might call "loving" terms. The effect is too often prettifying rather than challenging. Seduction as a method of literary art is tried and true, a function of plot device like suspense as much as aesthetic gesture like the portrayal of beauty. It is a great credit to Johnson's skill as a writer working in subtlety and nuance that there is the suggestion of "the seductive novel" with a female narrator as possibly a metaphor for how art by women is received (or otherwise disregarded) by the world.

But Johnson overwrites occasionally and robs her project of aesthetic sharpness. Proportion is off kilter. She could be razor-edged, conversely, by being more ambiguous, but opts instead to explain. Additionally, a constellation of over-used words, among them "tickle," "rinse," and "felt," numb the sensually-awake world Johnson has created. Paris is rendered as so Parisian it is almost a cliché of croissants and savvy old women. The sensuality of the prose is sometimes claustrophobic.  

There's also a predictable, tacit apology in the narrative that hobbles the revolutionary message of the book. Johnson over-explains her narrator's promiscuity as the result of an emotionally unavailable father and alcoholic mother. On the one hand, Deborah embodies the perspective that bears the contemporary sexual paradox of freedom and shame. On the other hand, why do we have yet another female character who is sexually free and feels some sort of guilt for her freedom? It would be bolder to present a character who eschews the tired association between a hearty female sexual appetite and a neglected or otherwise abusive childhood. Especially in the case of a female character whom the reader is supposed to take as a sort of genius of sensuality and an acolyte of second wave feminism. Especially in the case of a book that is a kind of portrait and biography told through the body. Especially in a book titled My Hundred Lovers, which directly baits our response -- whether progressive or judgmental -- to sexual immodesty.

The issue isn't that Johnson presents us with Deborah who, like many an interesting and lifelike character, is driven by contradictions. It's that the persistent fussing at Deborah's promiscuity as partially driven by a response to childhood suffering in contrast to Deborah's delightfully unrepentant enjoyment of lovers -- male, female, object, and metaphorical -- are presented side by side without depth. If Deborah is afflicted to some degree with shame, why isn't this aspect of her inner life explored further and even at the level of her body? Johnson need not resolve the quandary, but she could have given it more flesh and blood. Overall, suffering is depicted in this world, but not even close to the same extent as pleasure. "I am shameless about the violence of my physical ruin," declares the narrator early in the novel. The statement, in reference to aging, is exquisite, but could have been more provocative as a persistent attitude throughout the story.

My Hundred Lovers presents the reader with an assortment of pleasures, sporadic and strange insights, a revelation of love. Johnson delivers so acutely on vigorous and yet understated descriptions of cheese, dates with wealthy female lovers, sumptuous beaches, and painterly nightscapes, that it is impossible not to wonder how she would handle less glossed-over depictions of grit, loss, and brutality.

My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 978-1743315699
276 pages