Of Human Bondage

The women in award-winning poet Kim Addonizio's debut story collection are all pining for sex. Some yearn for s/m, bondage and discipline, or other, less choreographed acts of erotic menace. Others long for men who have proven to be unmemorable, even execrable lays. Many of these women have been molested during childhood, or raped in more recent years, and have become paranoid, alcoholic, agoraphobic, or depressive. Every single one of them has terrible taste in men. And when they think about them, they touch themselves.

Addonizio braves Mary Gaitskill's stomping ground, sketching portraits of troubled women who mistake a semblance of sexual chemistry for love and pay a dear price for their error in judgment. But where Gaitskill evokes richly textured emotional landscapes, exploring the kind of love and sex that can be by turns tender and sadistic, Addonizio's limited scope gets her stuck in a lock groove. Employing a flip, self-conscious voice, she attempts to shock readers with raw depictions of women who masturbate a lot and get excited when their sex partners humiliate them. With depressingly few exceptions, these women end up further down the well of loneliness and despair than where they started.

In "Have You Seen Me?," one of the more poignant and thoughtful pieces, a divorced community college teacher gets drunk with one of her male students, only to be cruelly rebuffed after making a pass at him. "Scores" is the second of three interconnecting stories about Fran, a rape and incest survivor involved in an obsessive s/m affair with her boyfriend's best friend. When her lover breaks off their liaison, he hurts Fran further by tattling to her live-in boyfriend, leaving her with nothing but the apartment. In "Gaps," a badly hungover woman, trying to remember whether she's had sex with the man in her bed, offers a bleakly ironic justification for her alcoholism: "My brain, at thirty, is becoming a tabula rasa. No longer corrupted by false knowledge or perverted by a sick culture, I can return to innocence."

Addonizio raises the stakes with more experimental works, like "The Gift," in which a woman uses a dildo she finds on the street and metamorphoses into a man the next morning, and "A Brief History of Condoms," which imagines the sentient life of a rubber. Though clever, the former recalls the work of Belgian novelist Jacqueline Harpman, and the latter echoes the style of the wildly imaginative poet Anne Carson. Nothing wrong with having influences, of course, but Addonizio is a talented writer, sure to go places as soon as she stops relying so heavily on the gratuitous, edgy spectacle of messed-up lives with no place to go.

 
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