Triptych image: Nan Goldin, "Young Hermaphrodite Sleeping, Le Louvre"
THIS, IN A NUTSHELL, is Stacey D’Erasmo’s explanation of our challenges and our missteps as we are driven by that unnamable ache to connect: “We are anxious about intimacy,” she writes, “we crave it and fear it, and as a culture we can have a low tolerance for its essentially mercurial nature.”
D’Erasmo’s Intimacy: The Space Between is the latest in Graywolf Press’s The Art of series on craft and criticism, which includes series editor Charles Baxter’s Art of Subtext and Sven Birkerts’s Art of Time in Memoir, among others. It’s a trim five-by-seven book, just the right size to slip into a coat pocket, with enough room left over for a Moleskine and a pen. Don’t be fooled by its almost palm-sized portability, though: D’Erasmo manages to teach, model, and argue many essential truths about intimacy within the slim volume, making The Art of Intimacy a perfect go-to resource for any writer, teacher, or thoughtful reader who wants line-level references to apt 20th- and 21st- century literature that represent intimacy in its kaleidoscopic diversity.
D’Erasmo frames the short, dense book with observations about Nan Goldin’s Scopophilia show at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York. This is both an expansive and efficient way to get right to it: by using this exhibition, which pairs intensely personal portraits of Goldin’s friends and lovers with classic images from the Louvre, D’Erasmo recounts the difficulty she encountered when trying to explain to a friend her experience: sitting in a darkened room with strangers, surrounded by modern and classic gazes. “Consider what follows,” she writes, “part of that explanation.”
She then begins to unpack ideas around intimacy and examine how we judge when a work of fiction is successful in producing intimacy. It’s the “space between” characters and a certain “textual atmosphere” in works of literature, she says — before she dives into her examination of 17 visual and literary works — that allow a sense of intimacy to bloom in the reader’s experience. By “textual atmosphere,” D’Erasmo means the “locutions,” the places in language that characters share.
Nine chapters provide readers with an accessible rubric for types of intimacy and the major tools writers use to produce them, though D’Erasmo warns that the book will not instruct a writer how to write intimate scenes, nor attempt an inventory of intimacy. Within each chapter, D’Erasmo wisely limits herself to two or three illustrative works in particular. The first chapter takes on what is perhaps one of the most delicate modes of intimacy, that of empathy. She presents how Elizabeth Bowen and William Maxwell both use the subjunctive in The House in Paris and So Long, See You Tomorrow, respectively, to create imagined closeness between characters, a closeness that expands their humanity. D’Erasmo carefully selects passages and surrounds the excerpts with just enough contextual information for those readers unfamiliar with her references, allowing them to fully grasp the importance of the technique in the work and for her argument.
Other chapters discuss D.H. Lawrence’s illustration of the power of sexual intimacy through characters’ shifts in perspective, Virginia Woolf’s focus on image to create collective intimacy, and Toni Morrison’s use of temporal distance to convey the intimacy of unspeakable maternal love as it is weighed against the forces that require survival and silence. Percival Everett’s The Water Cure, Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer are just a few more that help round out this discussion of intimacy of all kinds: platonic, imagined, romantic, and destructive.
Many critical discussions of craft can fall prey, in a flash, to polemic. In the sixth chapter, “Why Meet?” D’Erasmo calls out critic Vivian Gornick’s 1997 critical essays in The End of the Novel of Love for operating from a heteronormative definition of love, one “as naïve as it is offensive.” In less talented hands, this move could have turned into a battle cry against Gornick, a lunchroom brawl in which the critic and the reader are moved to throw all of the titles in the canon at Gornick’s narrow paradigm. But D’Erasmo is way too classy and too constructive for that. Instead, she steps beyond it, and addresses Gornick’s underlying assumption, that love should somehow instill Enlightenment ideals in individuals. She then uses this misapprehension to illuminate what I think is the central thesis of this book: that our contemporary notions of intimacy have become oversimplified, meaning something that characters naturally strive for in literature. And because of this, we (readers and writers) take it for granted that the stakes in a story can be a character’s unquestioned desire to feel closeness of any type.
The problem with this, to broadly paraphrase D’Erasmo, is that unexamined assumptions about something as powerful as intimacy make for stories that are full of stereotypes and stereotypical behavior. This is depressing. And it’s not art. By continually rearticulating how she conceives the different types of intimate relationships wrought by the best writers in this and the last century, D’Erasmo cleverly prepares us to accept that intimacy, necessarily, is a bit of a mystery, and that it is only when writers question their received ideas about intimacy that they are able to transcend sentimentality and produce stories that better illuminate this powerful, mysterious, frequently shape-shifting human experience. She cites J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace as one example in which an old story of sexual intimacy is set on its head with uncertainty and unusual power dynamics. And then she returns again to visual art, touching briefly again on Goldin’s work, before settling into a discussion of her experience seeing a specialized form of bondage.
Despite her claim that the book will not instruct writers how to write intimate scenes, her discussion does provide a very generous demonstration of how one might process an image for a story and push past received stereotypes to find what is truly intimate about an image — basically providing writers with a how-to guide on avoiding banality.
She details a photo shoot she observed, in which a woman encased herself in a giant inflated balloon. D’Erasmo shares the gamut of reactions she experienced as she watched the woman walk barefoot inside the thing, six feet high and three feet wide. She acknowledges that she noted the scene would make for rich material in her fiction (what writer wouldn’t) and when she describes the experience to other people, most understand the balloon as a womblike environment for the woman, a source of refuge and safety. Voilà: received stereotypes. D’Erasmo then considers her other reactions, her own projections of the woman’s emotions, and although some of them are murky, uncomfortable, and raw, she needs to express them in order to communicate the power of the performance. Slapstick, porn, and enslavement are all expected narratives, and clown, sex object, or victim could be the ways those stereotypes would reduce the woman in the balloon to type. If she had chosen to set any of these narratives about the balloon woman to paper, she writes, “none of them exposes me as the one who is choosing to tell her story.” D’Erasmo thus shows that the price of unexplored assumptions in literature is quite high. You could go that route, she is saying, but how does that make your art any different, special, or of use? She wants writers to go to the places they don’t understand, those uncomfortable, vulnerable places that require a lot of work to investigate and translate onto the page. To get intimate.
This is a book of teaching and a book of efficient criticism. But the beauty of The Art of Intimacy lies in the fact that D’Erasmo links both to a simple dictum, because ultimately her counsel that writers question the all-powerful tropes of “intimacy” emanates from E.M. Forster’s infamous entreaty to “only connect.” Engage in the hard work of conjuring mystery on the page, she urges us, insist on intimacy, and produce work that, like Didion’s, “dares the reader to look away, to blink.”