Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses , by Marjorie Garber. Pantheon, 243 pages, $23.
As I write this, the birds chirp; the trees rustle in the breeze; and my live-in sits upstairs with The New York Times Real Estate section creased hopefully under one fist and a telephone clutched in the other, punting inquiries into the uncaring ether of residential Brooklyn. Our sublet expires in 40 days.
His optimism this afternoon is touching. I remember all too well the voluptuous sense of promise, the stabbing near-misses and rapidly deflated expectations of our previous search, which culminated, in a spasm of ridiculous luck, with this lovely if grievously temporary duplex on a quiet, tree-lined street. Just a few days before we signed the sublease, I had walked by in a fit of kismet, stroked the wrought-iron streetlight as if it were Aladdin’s lamp and whinnied plaintively: “Who gets to live here?”
We did, it turned out, but on borrowed time. As the months ticked away and we watered the bay window ferns, Fantastik’d the handmade Mexican tiles and dined off the crockery of the apartment’s actual owners (on sabbatical in Washington, D.C., where they lived in unthinkable luxury off our fat rent checks), I came to understand that I was engaged in an absorbing but ultimately doomed love affair. Not with the guy–with the place!
The specific heartbreak of the perfect sublet isn’t broached in Marjorie Garber’s Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses , but the author does trot out just about every other rite of American upper-middle-class living and its accessories–trophy houses, dream houses, shelter magazines–only to briskly spackle each with the vocabulary of modern eros. “When you stop to think about it, buying and selling a house is a lot like dating,” writes Ms. Garber, director of Harvard University’s Humanities Center–the thought appears to have struck her in the supermarket checkout line. Further: “Second homes and vacation homes can be like love affairs and second marriages. They’re a chance to reinvent yourself, to start again–without the emotional and legal strain of divorce or disentanglement.” Open houses are “cruising” opportunities, she notices. Realtors resemble matchmakers. House-swapping is akin to spouse-swapping.
Yet the book isn’t made merely of Jerry Seinfeld-ish casual observation culled from Ms. Garber’s intimate circle (the “we” of the title seems to include many house-seeking baby boomer journalists and academics like herself, the better suburbs are the favored terrain and there’s not a lot of squalor). Famed for the breadth of her interests–she’s the author of books you might see poking out of tote bags on the Upper West Side, like Dog Love (1996), and others you might find in the knapsacks of the comp-lit suck-up clique, like Symptoms of Culture (1998)–Ms. Garber flits duly from Evelyn Waugh to the Oval Office to the Renaissance, Fran Lebowitz, Plato, Emily Post, Walter Benjamin, Cary Grant movies, Restoration Hardware, Rebecca and … Jerry Seinfeld.
But fleetingly. Like a butterfly. At 243 pages, 22 of which are footnotes, Sex and Real Estate has the feel of a junior-year term paper padded out to the assigned page count, a thin premise stretched practically to translucence with extra-long block quotes (Jane Austen and the French theorist Gaston Bachelard are especial favorites), words like “jejune” and chapter titles like “The House as Body” and “The House as Mother” (here there are big block quotes from Freud; Jung comes later).
Plowing through this literary potpourri in the car on the way back to our ticking time bomb of an apartment (from a lovely borrowed beach house in New Jersey), I was suddenly transported back to my undergraduate days–which featured the best housing of my adult life thus far–when phrases like “poetics of space” and “phenomenological approach” were flung around the high-ceilinged dining hall like so many pats of butter. “[The artist Louise] Bourgeois disconcerts our visual as well as our conceptual expectations,” remarks Ms. Garber in one of Sex and Real Estate ‘s typically airy analytical passages. “Are these portraits of the house as woman? Of the woman as house? Who is the ‘house-woman’? What is a house? Can the house be or contain a ‘mother’?”
And you think Oh, come on, Marge ….
It’s not that it isn’t high time for a book like this. Everybody knows that home acquisition and improvement is the No. 1 hobby of the whopping new moneyed class–not just in New York, where sheer desperation has driven things really out of control, but all over our fat land. Look at Martha Stewart! At In Style ! Watch the hordes thronging Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, etc. for $20 martini glasses and $500 slipcovers!
And Ms. Garber does look at these things–though again, fleetingly, and she seems most comfortable padding about in the insulated, cozy terrain of PBS’s antique shows, Harvard magazine and The Times ‘ House & Home section. (Where, one wonders, is the probing analysis of Home Improvement ?) She fails to make clear what, exactly, all this has to do with sex, any more than intense yearning for clothes or food, say, has to do with sex. It’s almost as if Ms. Garber had a few choice pensées left over from her formidable 606-page opus, Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (1995), and decided to just slap them on this slim new volume like a cheap coat of paint, hoping that it would move more copies.
In her introduction, she declares real estate today “a form of yuppie pornography.” Lately it has become hip to dub anything which consumes a lot of interest and produces compelling (if disposable) pictures “pornography.” (See the recent New Yorker article on “weather porn.”) My dictionary says that pornography is “the presentation of sexually explicit behavior, as in a photograph, intended to arouse sexual excitement.” I would indeed be very excited by the prospect of a fabulous new apartment–but not enough to hump the banister. Even Ms. Garber appears to weary occasionally of her central thesis. I was happily absorbed for pages in a long discussion of fake authenticity in a chapter called “The House as History,” getting a glimpse of the fun, sociologically savvy book this could’ve been, and all of a sudden I was compelled to think, “Hey, where’s the sex?”
Curiously, it’s the passages when Ms. Garber isn’t writing about sex that are some of the best and–forgive me–most concrete of the book. It’s when she turns to the sadomasochistic implications of “distressed” furniture that your mind begins to wander to the dirty dishes.
Alexandra Jacobs writes The Eight-Day Week for The New York Observer.