The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2016 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
She remembered them all in an embarrassing blur: the pretty, delicate drug addict, the masochistic Chinese boy, the pretentious Italian journalist, the married professor, the pompous law student, the half-crazy club owner who almost strangled her one night with his belt. The guy she met and screwed in the rest room of some tiny East Village bar, the one who later involved her in an exhausting ménage à trois with his Italian girlfriend.
— Mary Gaitskill, “Connection,” Bad Behavior
Well Rhonda had a house in Venice,
Lived on brown rice and cocaine.
Patty had a house in Houston,
Shot cough syrup in her veins.
Linda thought her life was empty,
Filled it up with alcohol.
Katherine was much too pretty,
She didn’t do that shit at all.
— The Nails, “88 Lines About 44 Women”
My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups,
in chronological order:
Those were the ones that really hurt.
— Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
“LEO WAS FROM a long time ago, the first one I ever saw nude,” begins “Lust,” the title story of Susan Minot’s 1989 collection. “In the spring before the Hellmans filled their pool, we’d go down there in the deep end, with baby oil, and like that.” The story, told mostly in the first person, breezes through the narrator’s dalliances with various boys while a teenager at boarding school. “Tim pinned me to a tree, the woods light brown and dark brown, a white house half hidden with the lights already on,” Minot writes. And then, as swiftly and as lyrically as she introduced us to these boys, she recounts the wounds inflicted by her entanglements with them: “After sex, you curl up like a shrimp, something deep inside you ruined, slammed in a place that sickens at slamming, and slowly you fill up with an overwhelming sadness, an elusive gaping worry.”
“Lust” moves in and out of the second person, the you, you, you enlisting the reader in the story and highlighting the universality of such amorous tales. If you’ve had sex, you have stories to tell about the people you’ve had sex with. I got to thinking about this the other night, as I lay on the couch talking by phone with Catherine, whom I’ve known since college. She was remembering the guy who told her he could only sleep on high-thread-count sheets. That reminded me of a man I knew, an investment banker eight years my senior, who bought me 600-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets the weekend I moved to New York — I was sick with the flu and sleeping on a bare mattress. He’d visited me at college the previous fall, seen the dark dorm room where I was writing, and shipped me a pair of Pottery Barn lamps. We slept together off and on for a year, and our affair might have lasted longer were it not for the oppressive onslaught of expensive gifts and the fact that, when he inscribed a book to me, he misspelled their “thier.” When I think of him now, the presents and the inscription, along with a handful of stray details — his syrupy Southern drawl, his persnickety habit of straightening his place settings at restaurants and correcting my slouchy posture — are almost all I remember about him.
“Mike was in the Navy, though I cannot see the sea in him. I cannot see ocean,” opens Louise Wareham Leonard’s slim autobiographical novel 52 Men. Narrated by her fictional alter ego, Elise McKnight, the book consists of 52 formative episodes with various men, and is set mostly in and around New York City. “We walk in the local park. It is autumn and cold and the leaves are rust-colored, spiky,” the passage continues. “Mike is good-looking with black hair and blue eyes. He is gentle and very quiet. When he calls me, a week later, I have a hard time placing him. ‘Mike,’ he keeps saying, ‘Mike, Mike from the park.’” In this flat, affectless prose, which oscillates between austerely effective and irritatingly mannered, Leonard-as-McKnight shares her personal collection of the sort of romantic memories we all have: the stories, anecdotes, and small details of those we’ve crushed on, obsessed over, dated, fucked, pined for, been hurt by, left. These are not stories of love, of deep affection that takes root and blossoms into engagement or marriage. These are stories of brief encounters, some of them sexual, a few genuinely traumatic — of the people who flicker in and out of our lives, who flare brightly for a moment and then are gone.
It is a conceit so simple and ingenious that you wish you had thought of it yourself: 52 men — a few boys, many man-boys; 52 short fictional vignettes that evoke them. (There’s also an extended 53rd episode, but I’ll get to that.) There’s Eddie, a 28-year-old phone company salesman, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment off Columbus Circle. “He has a stack of videos and books about the penal system, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Leonard writes. Elise is involved with a married man, so she and Eddie smoke pot together, keep things platonic. When her married lover returns to his wife, Elise leaves the country, never to see Eddie again. There’s Peter, a small, fast seven-year-old, who merits only four lines. He gives her what she believes is a love note; inside, she finds “the crushed body of a black fly, wings broken, round oily hot eyes.” There’s Alain from Queens, who works in freight, owns six vintage cars, and lives in a 20-room house on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. He “is broken, and very gentle,” Elise tells us. “You have saved me,” he writes to her, “from the jaws of despair.” Perhaps in gratitude, he buys her stuff: a leather blazer, Frédéric Fekkai haircuts, Cole Haan shoes, a tank watch from Coach. “When he has known me longer,” Elise says, drily parroting him, “He will buy me a better watch.” So that’s three — there are 49 more.
Leonard doesn’t develop her characters so much as conjure them with quick, precise strokes. Her impressionistic portraits at times feel unconsummated, to use a word that’s all too apt in this context, and this can be frustrating, the literary equivalent of a series of first dates. But her approach also gets at the truth of how we experience, perceive, and remember romantic encounters, which are paradoxical at their core: superficial, and often fleeting, they also involve the deepest intimacies, and contain the possibility that they could evolve into a significant relationship or an incident tinged with menace. Maybe sex (or the promise of it) heightens our perceptions; maybe we’re unusually vigilant as we attempt to judge this person, this moment, this potential relationship. Whatever the reason, our romantic liaisons frequently exist for us as a sharply observed collection of discrete details, like a director’s establishing shot — a few salient particulars that sum up the object of our affection, his or her clothing, living space, and peculiar or memorable utterances or behavior. The fact that one man’s bed “has a thin fitted sheet with broken elastic, so the sheet slips and slides all over the mattress,” as Leonard writes. Or that he has an “odd way of kissing, without opening his mouth.” The visit to the doctor’s office, the lunch with an editor, are rarely etched with such precision.
Of course, once these incidents meet with the vagaries of memory and time, all that tends to remain of the people we’ve been with is a distilled assortment of details and sense memories rattling around in our minds. “He had a sleigh bed and a pennant from Dartmouth,” Leonard writes. Or: “We go to the laundromat where he has a snow cone and reads Isherwood.” Or: “His ceiling is draped in silk. His walls are hung with Tibetan flags.” Paul, an actor and waiter, tells Elise, “I want to joust with you, so you always remember,” as he hands her a lance. It’s a humorous moment, but one of uncanny, idiot-savant-like emotional awareness: how true that in all likelihood this joust with him is the only thing she will remember of their date. (You can just hear a friend asking her, “Remember that guy who asked you to joust?”) Memory also has a way of reducing people to their essence, like a piece of sea glass honed to a bright, beautiful nub. This is, needless to say, a process that’s useful to a writer. “It seems to me,” says Carter, an introspective, sensitive 16-year-old who later commits suicide, “that sometimes people, especially girls […] have one beautiful little gesture they make, one characteristic thing.” For Leonard, the statement is something like a literary ethos.
“I’m capturing the core of these relationships, or sometimes just the edge — when they blossom or fail,” Leonard has said in an interview, and she has a knack for isolating the moment when a relationship’s prevailing weather pattern shifts. These turning points also tend to stand out in our memories. Someone says a brutal, unforgivable thing. Someone’s scary hidden self erupts. Alain, the gift-giver from Queens, yanks Elise by her hair and tosses her down his front stoop on New Year’s Day. (She’d suspected her presence was upsetting his young daughters, and asked whether she should leave.) Andreas, a married Greek donut magnate, who has four children, an Orthodox wife, a private plane, and a yacht, goes with her to the Village Vanguard, and, when the lights go down, pinches her nipple, hard, crushing it. Timothy sneers at the idea of a baby, and when she goes to pick up her belongings, he has made a list of her pros and cons. Pro: Great sex. Good person. Con: Needy, both emotionally and financially.
Leonard forgoes a chronological telling in favor of skipping around, following a private, internal logic. As I read, I couldn’t decide whether the book suffered for this gnomic approach, or whether, as Leslie Jamison wrote in a New Yorker review of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, another vaguely autobiographical novel about a woman’s psychosexual life, “to organize events sequentially is to take away their power.” Maybe, I thought, Leonard arranged the episodes according to the position of importance they occupy in her mind, or the repercussions they’d had on her life. A telling response on my part, since I could never shake the notion that 52 Men was a memoir about Louise Wareham Leonard instead of a fictional work about Elise McKnight, so palpable is the tissue connecting it to reality. The celebrities and quasi-celebrities who appear, for instance — Michael, Jay, Lou, and Jonathan, as in Stipe, Carney, Reed, and Franzen — as well as those who have died (including the aforementioned Carter Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt’s son and Anderson’s brother) are referred to by their actual first names, and further identified with revealing details. Jonathan is “the world’s most famous North American novelist.” “Lou,” she sees in a hot tub and pretends not to recognize, despite the fact that, as she puts it, “‘Sad Song’ fashioned all my dreams.”
Although some critics have faulted Leonard for her inconsistent stance on the truth — Kirkus said the book “straddles the line in a way that is irritating and perplexing,” and an interviewer noted that the celebrities were “outed” on the cover — the demand for a foolish consistency betrays an ignorance about the ways in which fiction writers are always mining and transfiguring their lives (they just don’t necessarily tip us off that they’re doing it) and speaks to a basic, human, if sometimes prurient, desire: to know what actually happened. In interviews, Leonard has been transparent about the fact that she’s writing from experience (“Every story is a man and a memory that lives with me all the time”), and my guess is the names, while providing a thrilling little frisson, are also nonfictional stakes tethering the stories to the real world. Did everything in them happen? Who knows? Who cares? Whatever license Leonard takes, these stories still bear the fingerprints of the author’s lived experience; they deliver the visceral punch of reality.
They feel truthful, in part because, for all their weird specificity, they’re almost eerily universal, a reminder of how pathetically unoriginal we human beings are when it comes to sex and love. I’ve had a man buy me a watch, and another promise to buy me a fancier one once we’d been together for a while. I’ve had several men tell me, as they tell Elise, “You’re too angry,” or “We are two very different people.” And I have set off to travel with one only to realize I can’t stand him. Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading this book is the snake charmer’s way Leonard has of summoning your own experiences and memories. When Elise talks about Hewson, the finance guy who took her on six or seven dates but never kissed her, I am reminded of the writer who took me on six dates and then sent me an email insinuating that I should have made the first move. His note began, “I have little gray matter for matters of the heart.” When she talks about E., who tells her he won’t ever leave his marriage, I think of the married movie director who told me he was separated but went into the hotel room bathroom and called his wife, whispering to her in low, muffled, but distinguishable tones.
We all have such stories, and many of us have a deep and insistent urge to tell them. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote, in one of her most frequently quoted (and misunderstood) lines. She was talking about the stories we tell ourselves, the self-deception we practice as we impose meaning on the world around us. Leonard’s book is about the stories we tell other people. We tell these stories precisely because everybody has them: they make people laugh, and they uncover wounds over which we bond. We tell them to get revenge on those who hurt us, and to redeem experiences that pained us. We tell them to brag: somebody wanted us. And we tell them because they’re nostalgic reminders of lovers who were once close to us. But we also tell them for the pure narrative pleasure of it: relationship stories have a natural arc — beginning, middle, denouement, end — and characters we can sketch with a few deft marks. Romance makes writers of us all.
IMPLICIT IN THIS NEED TO TELL is the idea that our stories say something fundamental about us, the tellers: that those we have loved, spent time with, mooned over, or slept with have helped to form who we are. These people have passed in and out of our lives, our psyches, our bodies. They have altered us with their words — criticism, praise, the sort of casual cruelties or keen but cutting observations only a lover would feel compelled to share. 52 Men suggests that our identity is at least in part a product of our romantic past, and that the particulars we choose to depict that past are significant, comprising a kind of personal psychobiography.
The micro-tales in 52 Men are all told in the first-person present tense, which means we don’t get much in the way of authorial reflection. Leonard’s focus is zoom-lens tight: she describes the various men, zeroing in on what they said and did -— and how she responded — in a pivotal moment. Her alter ego, Elise McKnight, thus remains vaporous, enigmatic, elusive. At least one reviewer, a writer named Brian McGackin, who, probably not incidentally, has published a book called Broetry (“Ode to That Girl I Dated for, Like, a Month Sophomore Year”), has criticized McKnight for being a cipher: “goddess and muse and troubled shell of a nothing character defined only by the men who love her.”
But maybe she’s rather a woman who has had defining experiences with a range of men and chose to write about this slice of her life. The narrow scope is surely intentional, a literary and philosophical choice, the ultimate point of this controlled literary endeavor. The 52 men, in aggregate, convey a fair amount about the woman, Leonard-as-McKnight, whose life they have passed through, however glancingly. She appears to be an open, experimental person who seeks out a variety of paramours, not always wisely (a junkie saxophonist, an acrimonious rock star, a pugnacious Italian, an endearingly earnest businessman, a severely depressed artist, a bartender who has gone back to school, a graphic designer with a swing in his apartment), perhaps because they offer a dip into a variety of lives and attendant selves. She’s chameleonlike, camouflaging herself to please this or that man. “As usual,” she says, “I decide to win him over.” She suffered a grievous early trauma, the aforementioned 53rd encounter — her stepbrother, Ben, started molesting her at age nine; in her late teens, their relationship turned sexual — and she’s wounded, her actions arguably emanating from that anguish. Yet she’s also slyly, coolly observant and has transformed her experiences into art, which is pretty much the opposite of being solely “defined by the men who love her.” We know her, ultimately, through the book she has written. The narrative specifics she selects to describe the men are hers, as is the deadpan humor; all of it arises from her artistic consciousness. Although in style and tone 52 Men differs from either Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights or Renata Adler’s Speedboat, it is, like both of these books, a novel of impressions unified by the author’s sensibility.
If 52 Men is a somewhat airless portrait of how one woman was shaped by — and has subsequently chosen to shape in narrative — the cavalcade of men in her life, Debra Monroe’s memoir My Unsentimental Education (a cheeky nod to Flaubert) opens outward to provide a sociological or anthropological take on the same. Monroe, a professor at Texas State University and the author of six books, shows herself and her lovers to be actors played upon by historical, cultural, and societal forces. The book’s central thesis, as it were, is the notion that romantic predilections are a product of the milieu one comes from, and that these don’t necessarily change as one scales the ladder of social-class. Monroe, who was raised in Spooner, Wisconsin, a blue-collar town of bars and strip joints surrounded by farmland, writes about her higher education, both erotic and academic. For a woman among the first wave of female PhDs in early 1980s, especially one from a working-class background, the two were complicatedly intertwined. “Men I’d gone to school with had heard women were their equals. I’d heard this too. But it was recent news then,” she writes in the prologue. “We’d all been raised in homes where women weren’t. I usually dated down anyway, because dating up was work. […] I chose men as if I’d never left home.”
Home is where the first chapter begins. Monroe revisits her childhood in Spooner in the late ’60s and early ’70s, where she absorbed lessons about womanhood and its limited menu of possibilities. Although women’s lib, as it was called then, was ascendant in other places, in rural Wisconsin women were expected to be a wife and mother (“I’d been raised, cultivated like a crop, to settle on a man,” says Monroe), and maybe to work a little on the side. Monroe recalls her maternal grandmother giving her a scrapbook for Christmas; it contained a checklist titled “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up,” with separate categories for boys and girls. “Mother,” Monroe writes, “[was listed] as the first Girls’ option, followed by Nurse, Teacher, Secretary, Stewardess. The Boys’ options didn’t list Father at all.” And yet Monroe, who from an early age displayed an appetite for reading and a facility with words, sets off for college, to earn what will be her first of three degrees. Her mother gives her a typewriter as a graduation present, telling her, Monroe writes, “to remember I was training for a job that would last only until I had children, though later I might work part-time,” at a “job that would move as my husband’s job would move.”
As far as husbands go, the examples she’d known left much to be desired. Her grandfather and father carouse, disappear for days, cheat. “That’s marriage,” her mother sighs. “It’s never our turn.” Her female relatives and the other women who briefly appear in the memoir (landlady, stepmother, mother-in-law) suffer the indignities heaped upon them because their husband is their identity, their power and influence in the world. Her grandmother, she says, “married a man who wasn’t her equal in terms of ambition because ambition had added up to zilch without a man.” When her father takes off for good, her mother tells her she would rather be widowed than divorced. Later, she marries a redneck monster who burdens her with debt, drinks to excess, routinely turns violent, and calls Monroe a cunt the first time he meets her. “Did I understand that being a middle-aged divorcée in a small, frozen town had made her feel redundant, a reverse spinster, without even a widow’s status, so she’d taken the first man on offer?” Monroe writes, rhetorically quoting her mother. Suffice it to say, if there wasn’t a societally sanctioned position for a single woman in lower-middle-class Midwestern America, there wasn’t even an unsanctioned place for a woman with an academic career. While she’s getting her master’s degree, her father, an auto parts salesman, tells her, “You’re educating yourself out of the marriage market.”
Monroe didn’t realize she was actually educating herself out of her social class, severing “the last conversational threads connecting me to my family.” In her jaunty, wry, aphoristic, and aptly unsentimental style (which can occasionally veer toward wacky or clotted), she describes her quick and vertiginous jump between echelons. Her prose is brisk, propulsive, infectious, and formally befitting of her subject matter, as each chapter effectively covers a man and a new geographic locale. There’s a boyfriend, 35 years old to her 18, who wears an eye patch and is wanted in Indiana for not paying child support. There’s a husband, a country music musician with a secret illegitimate child, who leaves her the day of a Halloween party they are throwing together. There’s another husband, a shiftless, untruthful, spendthrift sociopath with the irascible temper of a teenager, whose first instinct is always to throw a punch. “School had been a time of growing into one life and then another, another, changing social backdrops, lovers, husbands, each time hoping my new life would be the last revision,” she writes, verbalizing the whiplash-inducing speed with which the scenery of her existence changes during those years.
The stressful push-pull of performing her new, educated self — upon receiving her PhD, she gets a professorship at the University of North Carolina — and slipping back into the comforts of her old, provincial self forms the central tension of this book. What happens when the way you were raised is fundamentally at odds with the mores of where you are headed? Even while she is reading, writing, grading student papers, studying for exams, acing job interviews, and winning the Flannery O’Connor Award for her short stories, Monroe is sleeping with, dating, and marrying layabouts, hustlers, and small-time drug dealers. A professor, she tells us, once described her as “reasonably intelligent, but with unaccountably bad taste in men.” But her bad taste, such as it is, is in fact quite plainly accounted for in the memoir. It arises from growing up in a place where retrograde gender roles were the norm, from an inability to harmonize her intellectual and libidinous selves, from her superego tussling with her id. She longs for someone who can discuss her work or contemplate Lucretius with her, but with whom she also has “luxuriant, frantic, slaking” sex. “I wanted a man who’d match my old self, my new self, all my selves,” she writes. “So far I’d met Either and Or.”
My Unsentimental Education is at root a meditation on identity, on the irresolvable and often heartbreaking chasm that opens up inside oneself when one is caught between two different social classes. “The distance between my aspiring daytime self and my nighttime self had widened,” Monroe writes. I too was raised in the lower-middle-class Midwest. The towns I grew up in, in Iowa and Illinois, were neither blue-collar nor rural, but they were predominantly working-class, and far from the wealthy, intellectual milieus that were home to my classmates at the Ivy League college I attended. Once there, I found myself unable to convey the social challenges and humiliations of college to my family: I didn’t know what a phallic symbol was, had never read The New Yorker or ordered Japanese food or eaten fresh, not canned, pears. But I also found it impossible to talk to my classmates about where I’d come from. Few of them had backgrounds similar to my own. A persistent, nagging sense of alienation plagued me; my cultural referents and financial constraints were so exotic to my peers. I felt inadequate, embarrassed about all I didn’t know or hadn’t experienced, unable to relate. (Monroe: “When he realized I had never traveled, just moved, that I didn’t know opera, he stopped.”)
Dating — “hooking up,” as we called it — distilled the whole dilemma. The men I met had lifestyles I idealized, country houses and boarding schools and parents who were therapists or professors or businesspeople who held dinner parties and attended charity events. And yet these men also seemed ridiculously sheltered and effete to me, and I never felt I could be truthful with them about the disorientation I was experiencing. In one passage, writing about her schizophrenic grandmother, Monroe notes that schizophrenia is statistically high among first- and second-generation immigrants, and says, “researchers speculate that, for those predisposed, the radical stress of dividing the self between one world and its rules and another world and its rules serves as trigger.” This is a metaphor, obviously, for Monroe’s own psychic disassociation. If she beats this drum a bit hard at times (“I split myself in two,” she says, late in the book, and I scrawled in the margins, WE GET IT), it’s understandable, as this was the central quandary of her adulthood.
Upon first reading these books, I could anticipate a kind of knee-jerk feminist critique of the authors’ focus on male lovers, boyfriends, and husbands as a lens through which to view their lives. (Although readers of any persuasion might relate to either book, Leonard and Monroe are heterosexual women expressly talking about men.) What a limited way of viewing women, when they are so much more than the men they are with, this view goes. Why not focus on their professional and artistic accomplishments? True, women are no longer defined by marriage in the way they were for centuries, in the way that Monroe’s mother felt she was as recently as the 1980s. And these books are not chick lit: the quest for an engagement that culminates in marriage is not the organizing principle of either character’s existence. Still, both books also make the point that women are nevertheless profoundly affected by the men they choose. We may no longer be defined by whom we marry, but when people are spending nearly a decade or more of adult life unattached, our romantic experiences necessarily play a critical role in the formation of the self. “We are, all of us, molded and remolded by those who have loved us,” Françoise Mauriac wrote in The Desert of Love, a book I read years ago when I was studying French literature in college, “and though that love may pass, we remain none the less their work — a work that very likely they do not recognize, and which is never exactly what they intended.”
In their own way, both of these writers show how lovers can leave lasting scars. This or that man in 52 Men is always diagnosing Elise McKnight, telling her what her issues are, emphasizing that they can’t help her — it’s not their fault. “You are troubled and obviously on medication and at first I hardly recognized you,” says Jay, the magazine intern who “will be press secretary to a President.” When she starts to cry during sex, Charlie the saxophonist says, “I can’t touch you … You’re hurt, too hurt,” and turns away from her in bed. “You remind me of everything I hate about women,” Michael the rock star pronounces, when she takes him up on his invitation to visit. Reading all this, you think back to the ridiculous or disparaging things men have said to you (“Why can’t you be sweet?”) and the regrettable, though maybe deserved, things you have said in return. Because Elise isn’t merely a passive receptacle: “I cannot take your pain,” she writes to one man, and several others she simply leaves. When she breaks up with Klaus, a German guy from school, he cuts the eyes out of a photo of her and sends it to her in the mail. It’s an image that evokes the psychic wounds we all inflict on the people we’re intimate with. Neither party comes away unscathed.
Characteristically, Monroe doesn’t dwell on the psychological repercussions of bad partners, but her memoir is an incredible catalog of the practical difficulties they caused her. Physically: One tries to choke her when she breaks up with him. Another pushes her down the stairs while they are taking LSD. Her second husband, Chet, swings at the slightest provocation. Geographically: Her first husband, whom she never names, moves to Kansas with her and then leaves her, not long after, to shoulder their shared lease and piles of bills alone. Chet, unemployed and unfulfilled, begs to leave North Carolina, where Monroe is a professor; she finds a new job in Texas, and he doesn’t move with her. Financially: Chet has her apply for credit cards in her name and then spends profligately; she has to work a second job waitressing to pay down their debt. Almost lethally: Chet has her take out an expensive life insurance policy, then tampers with the brakes on her car so she nearly crashes. Monroe briskly acknowledges how easy it is to get irrevocably entangled with another person: “I’d hurtled through someone else’s history,” she says of her second husband. “Near miss. Almost mine.” Yet she’s also insistent that her bad-news significant others had some positive, if unintended, consequences. Had her relationships flourished, she would not have pursued work with such zeal. At one point, she tells a professor she’s getting a PhD because “no one’s around to mind.”
My Unsentimental Education leaves readers convinced that Monroe’s deadbeat lovers and romantic tribulations are knotted up with the creation of her successful, intellectual self in ways that can never be untangled. As she writes, quoting John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath: “How will we know it’s us without our past?”
In that pleasingly strange way the various projects you’re working on start cross-pollinating among themselves, as I was reading for this piece, I also began writing a personal essay about the men I met up with while traveling alone in Europe the summer I graduated from college. I found myself struggling not only with what I considered to be an embarrassingly antiquated reticence when it came to writing about sex — would a young woman’s sexual escapades be distasteful to some readers? — but also with the formal challenge of structuring the story. To me, it read like a string of unconnected episodes: and then and then and then. After several days spent stalled and weepy, I decided to go meta and wrote: What unifies a narrative about a character pitching from one romantic adventure to another? How do you prevent it from reading like a desultory chain of episodic affairs, devoid of plot, theme, or intrinsic order? How to write about a libidinous, searching, mischievous character who also happens to be a woman?
When men write about their sexual adventures, there’s a name for it, a genre: the picaresque narrative. “I myself am in a very old tradition, namely, that of the picaresque novel,” William Burroughs said in a 1974 interview, with all the bravado one would expect. “People complain that my novels have no plot. Well a picaresque novel has no plot. It is simply a series of incidents.” The most succinct definition of the picaresque I’ve found is that of the late Orville Prescott, erstwhile book critic for The New York Times; a picaresque, he wrote in his 1953 review of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, is a first-person account of “the adventures of a rogue held together only by the personality of its hero, with no unifying structure or situation.” In a picaresque tale, the protagonist tends to be fatherless, of modest origins, an outsider, a trickster, a social climber. He rambles around having adventures, sometime of the romantic sort. Think Augie March, Don Juan, Tom Jones, and the numerous other aimless, charmingly dissolute male heroes of Western literature.
By those dictates, 52 Men and My Unsentimental Education are picaresque narratives. Both consist of a series of incidents not driven by an overarching plot. Neither is, in Monroe’s words, “an old-fashioned story with coincidences and mirage-like continuity.” And both characters, Monroe and Elise McKnight, are itinerant, deracinated, distant from their families, essentially alone in the world, and improvising as they go. “I’d lived all over, and I’d lived by my wits, making choices by myself,” writes Monroe, who called five states home in as many years. About the men she got involved with, she says, “If I turned out to be wrong, having based my decision on who was locally available, on who suited my past if not my present or future, I alone was responsible, alone.” Elise, who at one point describes herself as “completely free,” roams mostly around New York, but she also travels to Mississippi, North Carolina, New Zealand, Montauk. It’s not a stretch to call Monroe and Leonard-as-McKnight sexual explorers, seekers, though perhaps not by design. As Monroe puts it: “I hadn’t meant to be a ‘sexual adventuress’ as I’ve heard Edna St. Vincent Millay and Martha Gellhorn described.”
It seemed like a remarkable coincidence that I was sent these two books while I was thinking about the idea of the female picaresque as I tried to shape my own essay — there isn’t exactly a robust tradition of picaresque narratives by or about women. There’s Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, arguably, though it’s obviously written by a man. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, though the heroine is first a hero, and her adventures are of an aristocratic stripe. Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, whose protagonist, Isadora Wing, leaves her husband and romps around Europe. Her successors these days are probably found in the realm of memoir: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. There are a scattered few more — Amy Bloom’s novels, Lucky Us and Away; Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus — but the point is that the picaresque has traditionally been an unrelievedly masculine genre. Of the 101 books mentioned on Goodreads’s list of “Best all time picaresque novels,” at the time of this writing, 95 are by men.
That’s not really surprising, since only in the past few decades have most women been able to move alone through the world. To light out for the territory, to hit the road, one needs freedom and mobility above all, and yet for much of history, women have been bound by familial and societal obligations, and from a very young age. They were also more vulnerable to physical danger, and castigated more harshly for flouting society’s orthodoxies and rules. Only with the greater personal and sexual liberation of the late 1960s and 1970s would a woman drifting from exploit to exploit have been a realistic fictional conceit.
Even today, when most women are fundamentally independent and living as they choose, many of us still don’t feel free to write openly about our sex lives, or to announce our refusal to conform to societal norms. You have only to go on the internet to see that slut-shaming is a real phenomenon and that women who dare to thumb their nose at convention are often very harshly judged. As Kathryn Schulz wrote in her excellent profile of Cheryl Strayed in New York magazine, “In a culture with profoundly ambivalent feelings about independent women, it is not always clear what kind of adventures we will be lauded for undertaking, nor what kind of tales we will be lauded for telling.” I thought of this when I read Mr. Broetry call the first half of 52 Men “a Gwyneth Paltrow sexual humble brag.” The characterization irked me because of the double standard it contains. When a man talks about the women he’s slept with, he’s just talking about his conquests, his sexual exploits — men are not only allowed to brag, braggadocio is expected from them. But how is a woman supposed to write about her past if it’s unseemly or boastful to say she’s been the object of desire? In a related aside about the “inconsistencies” of the sexual revolution and the hypocritical criteria by which women are judged, Monroe writes that women “weren’t supposed to pile up a ‘number,’ the new term for copious notches on the bedpost that men are improved by having.”
However, when women do risk entering the fray to tell their stories, they tend to be received with enthusiasm. There is clearly a ravenous hunger for more books and shows and films that reflect the truth of women’s lives. This is why Sex and the City garnered such a large and obsessive fan base during its six-year run; its characters talked candidly, even vulgarly, about sex, portraying it as just another vital element of a woman’s existence. It’s why Eat, Pray, Love and Wild became massive best sellers and were made into hit movies: Gilbert and Strayed dared to be frank about their appetites, their discontents, and their rejection of tradition. The dearth of such portrayals, still, is why Monroe’s and Leonard’s books still feel a tad revolutionary, even in 2016. And it’s also why when women write about their erotic adventures the tales have a different resonance and cultural impact than those written by men.
Of course, in any discussion of women’s stories, it’s crucial to note that they also carry their distinctive emotional and cultural weight because they are so often tales of assault, violence, and abuse. But while abuse is obviously present in both books, I’m reluctant to classify either as a narrative of trauma sustained and overcome. Both women have indeed triumphed, in some sense, but through art, which is mysterious and unpredictable and cannot be easily reduced to causes and effects, perpetrators and victims. Monroe, who lived through a country music album’s worth of bad men and harrowing ordeals, rejects the premise outright: “By today’s standards, using one-size-fits-all diagnostics, he was abusive. But I never thought his anger was my fault. I never felt helpless, or not for long.” (In October, she penned an essay for Kirkus bemoaning the vogue for equating memoir with therapeutic tales of recovery and the resultant narrowing of the genre.) Her quirky, fast-paced book doesn’t read like a recovery memoir at all, so averse is she to psychologizing and so crisply and efficiently does she dispatch with emotion, like the native Midwesterner she is.
Leonard recounts a handful of truly disturbing incidents: she wakes up to one man having sex with her, even after she told him no; about another, she writes, “It isn’t rape exactly. It isn’t consensual either.” Some of these encounters seem to replicate her early trauma; others appear to offer a kind of balm or escape (“the water is green and salty and rushes in solid sweeping walls against us”). In an interview, Leonard has said that she views the second part of the book, about Elise’s stepbrother’s abuse — fictional, she emphasizes — as an “explosion” and “the 52 men the result or ‘fallout’ of that explosion.” But it’s interesting she chose to structure the book so that we read about the childhood trauma after we read about the 52 men — our judgment is not colored, and we don’t come to easy conclusions. The book, to Leonard’s great credit, rarely draws stark lines. Elise is sometimes the wounded, sometimes the one who wounds. Like most of us who wade into the emotional deep and come back with stories to tell, she is probably both.