The Technique of the Love Affair , by A Gentlewoman. Pantheon, 222 pages, $19.95.
Satyricon USA , by Eurydice. Scribner, 256 pages, $22.
Dorothy Parker, in her New Yorker review of The Technique of the Love Affair , a 1928 how-to manual by “A Gentlewoman,” was typically wicked and plaintive: “You know how you ought to be with men? You should always be aloof, you should never let them know you like them, you must on no account let them feel that they are of any importance to you … you must be, in short, a regular stuffed chemise. And if you could see what I’ve been doing! The Technique of the Love Affair makes, I am bitterly afraid, considerable sense. If only it had been written and placed in my hands years ago, maybe I could have been successful instead of just successive.”
I must say I felt something similar while reading the likewise pseudonymous Eurydice’s Satyricon USA , a chatty, bizarrely erudite and frequently astute “road tour” of the far frontier of state-of-the-art American sexuality. All those afternoons my high school girlfriends and I wasted discussing the mysteries of testosterone when we could have just gone down to the local gay bar and cut each other and drunk each other’s blood while our sisters watched and cheered! All that time lost hoping some boy liked me when what I should have been praying for was U.F.O. abduction and a weekend fling with almond-eyed aliens! All those years spent foolishly thinking that sex required a living, breathing body when I could have hurried over to the local funeral home for what one woman, a Los Angeles devotee of “necroplay,” seems to regard as the ultimate mercy fuck: “The dead are so lonely. The farewell touch from the living is the most important ritual for the dead. It’s honoring the life they had.… Necrophilia isn’t confusing. There are no mind games, no rejection, no funny looks, no long-term financial and emotional investment. It’s like taking Communion.”
Oh, dear, what would “A Gentlewoman” have had to say about that? Just be careful not to let the corpse know that you like it! Reissued in a version annotated and sprinkled with pleasant, vapid mini-essays (“On the Love Letter,” “Flapper Fashions”) by Norrie Epstein, The Technique of the Love Affair is a lighthearted, brittle entertainment–imagine having a conversation, over martinis, with the flapper love-child of Machiavelli and Helen Gurley Brown. The book is structured as a pedagogical dialogue between two female allies in the gender war.
One of them is Cypria, a woman of the world who doesn’t bother hiding what she thinks, nor does she hesitate to draw up the terms of the black-widow-spider death struggle often mistaken for true romance: “Women are more guileful than men, but men have the advantage of being more necessary to us than we are to them. That is the keynote of the whole position between the sexes.” The jaded, experienced Cypria has been there and done that; presumably successful and successive, she can choose each week a new fabulously rich, handsome man with whom to play mind games.
After 50 pages in Cypria’s company, that corpse in Los Angeles starts looking pretty attractive. The real-life dominatrix whom Eurydice interviews, Mistress Leah, is at least a consummate professional. (“All my clients are grateful and respectful … I’m not mass-marketed: I’ve no 900 line, no Web page, no video. I don’t do phone sessions … Be quiet or I’ll tear your tongue out,” and her business seems healthier and more straightforward than the exquisite psycho-dominatrix technique in which Cypria tutors Saccharissa, her fascinated ingénue pupil. Saccharissa functions in the book to keep Cypria fired up and responding to nonsensically innocent questions and avowals such as: “I should never seek to inveigle any other woman’s cavalier away from her.”
The Technique of the Love Affair , which achieved some notoriety in its day, is an ironic performance by Doris Langley Moore, herself an interesting character, a great beauty, a translator from the Greek, a collector of vintage costumes and an expert on the history of fashion, the author of novels, biographies and a play, the designer of Katharine Hepburn’s white dress in John Huston’s The African Queen . But despite the airy, offhand tone she affects in these pages, you keep imagining the book being read seriously or semi-seriously by slightly older, better-educated versions of those young women seeking relationship advice in Mademoiselle and Glamour . And why should they follow Cypria’s? For all her prattling about smart flapper girls getting what they want, it’s often hard to tell what she wants, exactly. Not a lover, certainly. Not money, precisely. Power and excitement come closest.
Power and excitement are also the currencies traded in the sexual communities (now there’s an eerie concept) that Eurydice visits in the series of essays, articles originally written for Spin magazine, comprised by Satyricon USA . “I met lawyers who paid to be electroshocked during their lunch hour, bankers who dressed as cheerleaders … politicians who liked to be hung on a cross, bagpipers (armpit sex), genuphallators (knee sex), furtlers (sex with pictures of celebrities), pygmalionists (sex with mannequins).” Nothing quite matches the shivery thrill of slipping into women’s clothes for the cross-dressers whom Eurydice meets visiting Provincetown’s annual Fantasia Fair. (She meets the wives, too, who are having mixed success accepting that this is how the men of their dreams get off.) In successive chapters, Eurydice turns up the heat. She finds furtive groping in the communities where it’s most covert and explosive: in the uncomfortably co-ed military and … yup … in the Vatican. She talks to cutters and body-piercers, bloodletters, e-mail sex addicts, and vampire sex-show performers.
It makes for weird stereo, reading about all this full-throttle libertinage with the television droning on in the next room, transmitting the maddening rhythms of our nation’s highest elected officials debating whether or not our President got a little blowjob in the Oval Office. The characters in Satyricon USA and those in the Senate seem equally sex-obsessed, though, needless to say, with a different spin. Any sensible person would prefer Eurydice’s “necroplayers” and lap-dancers (“Strippers are their own voyeurs. We have male minds. We get the male stereotypes”) to Henry Hyde, any old day. And Eurydice’s “happily married 40-year-old surgeon who has been secretly bedding an average of 10 women a month for the past 10 years” makes Bill Clinton look like a callow neophyte and a model of fidelity. However sad or admirable, scary or peculiar, Eurydice’s subjects are also–unlike the evening news–almost never boring.
By contrast, The Technique of the Love Affair rapidly begins to seem like a long leisurely shopping trip with Monica Lewinsky and her mother. All that strategy, posturing and scheming, that blither about something neither especially thoughtful nor particularly true–it’s just not much fun, or funny, and definitely not lunch with Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin Round Table.
Finally, neither book is about sex, exactly, and certainly not about romance. They’re both about expending huge amounts of energy and effort to get and have sex. (Love is just plain wasted effort.) Cypria gives Saccharissa endless, impossible technical instructions for deforming her personality in order to snag and control Mr. Right. The various obsessives in Satyricon USA have what amount to demanding second jobs; the successful, busy S-M club client must presumably spend a certain part of his overcommitted day figuring out that what he really wants to do tonight is get covered with hamburger meat and ketchup, and have a “model-pretty dominatrix … grinding the meat into his own with her stiletto-heeled, open-toed boots until he looks like a hideous traffic accident.”
If reading these two books in tandem tells us anything, it’s that we are a nation whose special kink is to work overtime for pleasure.
Follow Francine Prose via RSS.