Things That Can’t Be Described Head-On: On the Odd But Real Hotness of Robinson’s LILA

One of the many things I do when I’m not posting on this blog is c0-managing the Marilynne Robinson Appreciation Society tumblr. This morning, while I waited out a household-plumbing emergency, I posted a link to Michelle Orange’s review of Lila for Bookforum. I had some reactions to her comments on Robinson’s handling of sex that were too big to fit there (no double-entendre entended), so I put them here. Orange writes:

Desire. A bold word, perhaps, in Gilead, a world of worry, reverie, and exquisitely fraught interactions. … “Somebody,” I said, midway through Lila, turning, wide-eyed, to the man with whom I had spent an otherwise chaste week in a primly Christian maritime village, reading Robinson’s novels in quick succession, “needs to fuck somebody.” Instead, Ames and Lila ‘comfort’ each other, in two sentences that form Lila and its predecessors’ almost impossibly discreet reckoning with sexuality …

This struck me a) because that sounds like a rough vacation, even with the good reading material; but also b) because Lila is actually one of the hotter novels I’ve read recently—certainly far more so than most of the novels I’ve read that had as their explicit purpose being hot. When it comes to literature (other media are a different matter), I’m not necessarily put off by the label “pornography,” if a book is smart and well written—after all, that label has been applied to the works of Apuleius, Boccaccio, and Nabokov in their time. But such books rarely strike me as having, deep down, much of anything to do with sex at all. Certainly the canonical works of literary pornography—I’m thinking here of de Sade, Apollinaire, Battaille, and other French people they make you read in grad school—are concerned largely with rape, enslavement, kidnapping, savage beatings, abuse of children and animals, or, in the case of Sade, mass murder: acts that are nonconsensual and thus—if we take the commonsense position that sex is the ultimate collaborative act between and among persons—are not about sex at all. (Notice I say “between persons.” This is not a conservative website.) They’re about cruelty, about proving your importance by exploiting the vulnerabilities of another being; no wonder if they take aim at the place where we’re all most sensitive. Of course loveless, self-aggrandizing power would aim ultimately at the effacement of the very borders between its body and mine; that kind of power can’t tolerate otherness. Sex, on the other hand, absolutely requires it.

Then there’s D.H. Lawrence, a supposedly erotic writer whose sex scenes are actually sermons about the Life Force. Or there’s Kathy Acker, whose pornographic passages are, like all the other parts of her books, really about her theories about writing and plagiarism and whatnot, which I happen to find a rather turgid subject.

In fact, the more I think about it, the harder it is for me to name a book explicitly concerned with sex that makes me want to go have any. I love the novels of Samuel R. Delany, for example, and a book like Phallos, or the sex scenes in the Neveryon sequence, are fascinating to me for their erudite essayistic meditations on sex, power, civilization, etc., but being intellectually engaged is, again, not the same thing as being turned on. (It’s a necessary condition, in my case, but not a sufficient one.) Here it may just be that Delany largely describes male-on-male couplings and I happen to be heterosexual. Either way, scratch him off the list. I’d seriously worry about myself if I got turned on reading Nabokov. Alasdair Grey is another excellent writer who plays with the tropes of pornography, but he’s anti-pornographic, at least to me, in his effects. A novel like 1982, Janine is moving precisely because it shows us a guy reading the kind of misogynist power-tripping porn described above, and then takes us through his entire sad life to show us how he became such an asshole. It’s about politics, about feminism, about personal history, about bullying and what it covers up for, but it’s not about sex.

Just once, leafing through a Dodie Bellamy novel, I ran across a description of women’s genitalia that was so lovingly accurate in its similes as to be worthy of its subject. It was hot. And that’s honestly about it for avowedly sexy books that actually managed to be, for me, sexy. But Lila, with its infinitely gentle, discreet references: that was just as hot.

Tentative suggestion: Sex would appear to be one of those subjects where evoking the thing and describing the thing are not merely distinct, but, at least a lot of the time, opposed.

And this brings me back to Michelle Orange’s review:

The murky status of Lila’s soul marks her with God’s grace, a sign most evident in her face, which she covers habitually. Ames marvels at the human face, especially Lila’s, “the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.” Lila finds horror in that same idea: “[A face] can be something you want to hide, because it pretty well shows where you’ve been and what you can expect. And anybody at all can see it, but you can’t. It just floats there in front of you. It might as well be your soul, for all you can do to protect it. 

Our faces: the more we inhabit them, the less we feel we know them. If you describe my face to me, I’ll only picture a bunch of pieces that don’t add up. Having read the entire Iowa trilogy, I can’t recall one description of Lila’s face, and yet I know exactly what she looks like. Sex is not the only subject that needs to be approached sidelong.

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