Oh, the travails of the over-sexed, how hard their lives must be, full of lies, logistics and other people’s pesky emotions. This, at least is the sense I got from Binnie Kirshenbaum’s bizzarely inert novel, a disturbance in one place. Bizarre, because it tells the story of a woman so oversexed her life should, by all accounts be far more interesting than, say, mine, and inert, because reading about sex should be far more titillating, or at the very least sexy, than this book proves to be.
The novel is narrated by an unnamed New Yorker, a woman who is many things to herself: Jewish but unaffiliated, married but involved with three other men, left-handed—a fact she repeats over and over again but to little effect; after all, once a leftie passes through the terrible kindergarten phase when all scissors seem created as an instrument of torture, who cares? One wouldn’t think an adult would be so hung up on something like that, but she is. Interesting, since she doesn’t seem to be hung up on anything else.
She also seems to be searching for something, or at least she claims to be. It’s tempting to think that her search has to do with one of her many men: the one she calls “the love of my life,” an older, self-denying, withholding Holocaust survivor so damaged by his wartime childhood that he attempts to make the world as drab as possible, even dedicating his professional life to railing against the coloration of movies. (This, incidentally, is supposed to be funny, but as with everything else in this novel, it comes of as sad—and by sad, I do not mean filled with pathos.)
Our narrator reveals that she got married solely to entice “the love of [her] life” to finally sleep with her, but he won’t. So she now has a husband, who is so WASPy as to be practically invisible. What purpose he serves in her life—other than to keep her lovers from getting hopes of permanence with her—is impossible to say.
Then she meets “the hit man,” really an historian of early American politics, and, as the not-so-subtle nickname may indicate, of Sicilian heritage. Just to drive home the stereotype, he is also from Brooklyn, dark-complexioned and hairy. He, foolish man, adores her, wants to be with her always, to possess her, eat her down to the very marrow of her being. He also cooks for her, which is a good thing, because it seems she is incapable of sustaining herself on her own.
Lastly, there’s the “multimedia artist,” who, she is disturbed to find out, is Jewish, just like she is. He even resembles her, and like her, he’s selfish, self-absorbed and meticulous about keeping things separated: for him, alphabetized books and journals, for her, men. Again, to make sure that this is an entire universe driven by formulaic characters, he seems to hate Jewish women as much as she hates Jewish men. One would think they were perfect for each other.
It is tempting to think all this compulsion towards sex is a response to “the love of [her] life’s” unwillingness to be with her for more than a movie or cup of coffee, but in fact, this is a woman who has never been capable of loyalty. Ever since discovering the penis as a child, she seems to have been on a quest to possess as many as she can, sleeping with multiple boys or men at once, cheating on everyone from a dim-witted college soccer player (with his coach…at the game) to a sweet but jealous (rightly so, although she doesn’t tell him that) schoolteacher, to her all-but-silent husband.
No, it’s death she’s after. In the age of AIDS, she doesn’t worry about sexually transmitted diseases, even going so far as to tell one of her lovers not to use a condom. But that’s just a symptom. It’s the obsession over the older man who is more dead than alive himself, which taps into a childhood obsession with the Holocaust—an obsession discouraged by the most unbelievable Jewish mother ever created in fiction, a woman who brushes off any event that occurred between 1938 and 1945 with a wave of her hand. For that short, pre-adolescent period, our protagonist read every book she could lay her hands on, beginning with that classic The Diary of Anne Frank, that described Nazi atrocities in gruesome detail.
These, it seems, were the only books she ever read, and yet she prides herself on her intelligence. She did attend Columbia (never named, but any graduate who picks up the book will clearly see her alma mater in its shorthand), but those years seemed to have offered her a chance to widen the pool of potential bedmates more than any real knowledge. Now that she is an adult, her many assignations take up so much time, there is simply no time to pick up a newspaper, much less a book.
And her familiarity with Judaism is suspect, too. Raised as far-removed from the religion and ethnicity of her “people” as possible, she has somehow picked up some of the words and attitudes that only someone who grew up within a deeply Orthodox environment would know. Believe me, no secular Jew entirely misses Yom Kippur but somehow picks up a liking for tsimmes, a gooey mess of stewed prunes, apricots and carrots; it’s quite sweet and delicious, but hasn’t exactly entered the mainstream as bagels and lox have. She lives in New York, after all, the city that is home to more Jews anywhere in the world outside of the State of Israel. Non-Jews who grow up there often think they’re Jews (but they still don’t know what tsimmes is), but somehow this woman manages to miss that the holiest day of the year was upon her. She’s far too busy juggling her sex life.
Interestingly, most of the men around her are identified by what they do, their professions spelled out, even enacted, but her only job seems to be to bang as many of them as she can. She doesn’t seem to have a job—a strange fact in New York, where people identify themselves by what “they do” almost as quickly as by which neighborhood they live in.
Ultimately, though, it’s not her immorality that’s problematic. That’s fairly banal. It’s her inhumanity. Even liars and cheats justify their lives, to themselves if to no one else, but our protagonist sees herself clearly, coldly even, admitting that she cannot comprehend the round of human feelings the rest of us suffer through—and through which we grow. Only sociopaths behave this way. Perhaps Kirshenbaum set out to paint the picture of a sociopathic nymphomaniac, and I have just completely missed the point, but that’s hard to believe. There’s too much misplaced sincerity attached to the notion of searching for the self or purpose or love, or whatever it is she searches for.
Maybe, though, the fact that the author could never bring herself to name her character is the first clue that she never came alive, never took over the story and made it her own. As it stands, this character seems to want to stand for something—modern malaise, maybe, or the loss of history—but she never becomes real enough to even be herself. And, after all, that is why we read novels: to meet the people who inhabit our strange and broken world.