Recently, I publicly read a story of mine about a man and woman whose experiments with sexual role-playing go awry when the woman feels the man is abusing her. She becomes frightened, then angry; they fight, reconcile, and go to sleep in each other's arms. Afterward, an audience member commented that the story seemed to him an optimistic American version of Milan Kundera's "The Hitch-Hiking Game" another story of a couple playing a sexual game that becomes abusive, except that the woman proves unable to call a time-out. "Game" ends with her curled in a ball, sobbing while the man regards her with distaste. The audience member thought Kundera's characters were darker and more jaded than my problem-solving Americans, and he repeated the chestnut that Americans are, of course, more naive than Europeans.
To me, Kundera's couple seems the more naive because they fall so thoughtlessly into archetypal behavior, which completely unravels them. My characters are, for better or worse, more self-conscious about how far they want to cede themselves to a sexual archetype. You could say the hitchhiking couple are experiencing sexuality more deeply than my American characters, who are trying to treat the roles of aggressor and victim as costumes which can be put on and taken off at will. The American characters are trying to resolve a problem of aggression and loathing between men and women that Kundera's story suggests is ultimately unsolvable; my characters are more complicated (that is, more human), but Kundera's have a raw power that comes from their embodiment of sexual forces unmediated by self-consciousness.
I thought of this conversation when I read Lila Says, a short French novel by an anonymous writer who calls himself Chimo, and who is supposedly a 19-year-old North African from a Parisian ghetto. The book has been a huge success in France, where the papers have been speculating about the identity of the author. (I imagine he is closer to 30 than 19, but whatever.) It is an arresting piece of work, because of its poetic, humorous style and because of its content: few American writers could have written it without having a nervous breakdown about racism and misogyny.
Scribner, 128 pp., $20
Buy this book
Lila is a flawlessly beautiful blue-eyed blond girl, the only such specimen in a desperately poor housing project inhabited mostly by Arabic and African refugees. (Rhapsodizing over her hair, Chimo speculates that "Sometimes it goes back forty or fifty generations and then boing right under your nose you get a blonde in a dark family, even the experts don't know why, it's like a Ferrari showing up one morning in the parking lot outside H block.") Chimo gets to know the Ferrari when she walks up to him and begins talking about her perfect blond pussy, "about how a little jewel of ruffledy silk like that, with its hidden bud and swollen leaves stuck on tight, it'll never get crumpled." She asks if he wants to see it, and gives him a quick look while she's going down the slide in a crummy playground. She goes on some more about sucking and fucking, in outrageously pretty porn-speak, then heads home.
"For someone like her you can't say a broad, or a chick, or a babe, or a bitch, or a piece of ass," marvels Chimo. "It doesn't fit her, it's not for her, you can't even say a girl. She's unique, should have a word all to herself."
And how! Lila chatters nonstop about big dick, gang-bangs, and porn movies; she is elegant, clever, and totally unreal. Although Chimo is more compassionate and patient than I think a 19-year-old would be, he is real, lost in and enraged at the grossly unpretty world around him:
. . . it sucks, you never walk near the buildings 'cause you might get an old fridge dropped on your skull or some greasy water or flying turds since the sinks are always stopped up and the toilets too, it's totally unbelievable. . . . "
The teenagers' lewd flirtation culminates when Lila and Chimo ride around the project on a bike, she gymnastically changing positions while he strokes her fantabulous pussy and she wanks him but good. After that, she wants him to prove his friendship by stealing a camera so that he can film her screwing lots of guys, but tragedy intervenes.
I rolled my eyes and muttered "yeah, right" a lot, like when Lila confesses to Chimo that lots of girls are like her, they just won't admit it, and it burns them up inside. Still, the book is good enough to make one remember that the literary use of archetypes is not always bad, even if it is unfashionable. Lila is a weird, creepy version of the classic Virgin/Whore, and as such, she's compelling even when she's trite. She's a shimmering mirage of boyish longing brilliant, beautiful, freakishly carnal, kind, cruel, ever-elusive, and yet completely available in every way. She has little to do with real women, but she has romantic power as an expression of men's complicated feelings about women. Such feelings are potent and deep, but as expressed in a character like Lila they are also very naive.
Norman Mailer has made abundant use of Powerful Slut/ Evil Queen archetypes, but they make sense in his outsize comic-book landscapes, where all the characters are a dynamic combination of real and absurd. Philip Roth's Cannibal Mothers are caricatures, but they have pathos and great lines. And Charles Dickens used female archetypes as major characters the Angelic Virgin, mostly but he offset their stasis with richly textured landscapes and a wild assortment of supporting female characters that give his novels a full, lively scope. (I don't believe Dickens did this to be fair to women, but to write good books.) There are no other females in Chimo's book though the dark-skinned girls of the projects are briefly described, mostly as desperate dogs, cunts, etc. The imbalance is emphasized by the humanity of Chimo and his bumbling friends, and the best scenes are the ones without Lila in them. (When some idiotic TV reporters come to the projects to badger the boys about a supposed race riot, one of them remarks, "They make you wanna torch the place even if you don't wanna"; your sympathies are with the boys.) Lila can't hold up her end of the sky; the book's like a see-saw with all the weight on one end.
There is nothing more despised than the earnest American penchant for politically correct questions about racial and sexual fairness in art. But a request for "fairness" is sometimes a clumsy way of asking for "truthfulness." Fiction doesn't need to be true to social reality if the author creates a congruent, organic world with its own rhythm and sense. Lila, as the only cartoon figure in an otherwise rich, breathing landscape, doesn't make sense, and she seems doubly false because the book does purport to represent a social reality.
Lila Says is possibly a witty put-on, an elegant piece of sexy silliness goofing on the blond bitch and all she might represent. It's got some fun passages, like the one where Lila first offers to show Chimo her pussy and he balks. " 'Shit!' she goes. 'You're a real pain in the ass, you know? It's a freebie you didn't even ask for and you're bitching anyways. For once I feel like doing this with you but the offer won't last! I don't care how much your tongue hangs out, I'm warning you!' " Chimo: "My heart got the news and switched to sunshine." It has charm and humor, but Lila Says is finally lightweight and strangely unaffecting.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.