At a time when it may seem that writing about love has been exhausted, how does a writer approach a love story with a fresh perspective? These four novels, ranging from the perversely comic to the lyrical and sensuous, attempt this daunting task.
Ana Castillo, best known for her novel So Far From God, writes rhapsodically about a love triangle in her lyrical and moving new novel, Peel My Love Like an Onion (Doubleday, $23.95). The narrator, Carmen la Coja ("The Cripple"), a dancer, is torn between her mentor, the dark Agustin, and his nephew, the talented and womanizing Manolo. Stricken with polio when she was 6 years old, Carmen overcame her physical disability to become an icon in the world of flamenco dance.
The novel alternates between Carmen's present life in her forties, when the polio has reappeared, and her reminiscences about the whirlwind life of flamenco dance and romance. Living with her recalcitrant mother and submissive father, Carmen is forced to endure the humiliation of taking a job at a pizza stand at an airport because her mother believes that "work is work." As she remembers the lost loves of her life -- the two men and her ability to dance -- Carmen alternates between feeling bereft ("I was left one Sunday without a Mass") and unrepentantly optimistic ("And yes, [love] is light and warm and sudden").
In the hands of a lesser writer, such blithe nostalgia might fall into sentimentality. Yet Castillo's clever wit keeps the novel from ever becoming melodramatic. Take, for instance, the soap-operatic aspects of the novel, which are wonderfully underlined by Carmen's mother's addiction to soap operas. Her lyrical prose, comic sensibility, and depiction of the resilient Carmen create an atmosphere of hope in a world full of loss -- loss of the ability to dance, of the two men (who ultimately choose each other), of a sense of independence.
Slap and Tickle
Love and loss are depicted in vastly different ways in Leslie Schwartz's debut novel, Jumping the Green (Simon & Schuster, $23). It's the story of Louise Goldblum, the "It" girl of the moment in the art world; the murder of her beloved sister, Esther, has propelled her into masochistic sex, drugs and destruction. Born into a dysfunctional family of booze-addled and indifferent parents, Louise learns early that "passion and love are fraught with delight between the legs, [a] slap in the face, [a] wedding of pain and pleasure." Thus the novel creates an internal logic where sex, love and pain are inextricably intertwined, as evidenced by Louise's escape from grief into a world where she emulates her self-destructive sister and becomes involved with Zeke, who ties her up and photographs her bruised and beaten body.
Jumping the Green begins with a stunning line that provides an epigram for the scope of the story: "My discovery of masturbation is accompanied by the sudden epiphany that lovers slap each other around." Alternating between the present and scenes of her childhood, in which she witnesses sexual and violent acts between her parents, neighbors, and Esther and Esther's adolescent love, Danny, Louise recounts the stoicism and violence of Goldblum family life and the abuse she allows herself to suffer at the hands of the all-encompassing Zeke. He brings her, ultimately, to the brink of death in a scene eerily reminiscent of Esther's murder.
Though the novel sometimes falls into a schematic pattern the reader may find easily recognizable (one begins to consider the '90s obsession with sex and violence), Schwartz's command of the language and unflinching depiction of family life sustains the reader through passages that are so graphic as to border on the sensational. Louise's abiding love for Esther, who loved no one else after Danny's suicide, brings an added poignancy to the surviving sister's suffering. In a final violent act -- Louise creates a scene from her childhood for an art show and then destroys it -- we are reminded of the destructive forces of love, familial and romantic, that can drive even the sanest to the edge of madness. It is a testament to Schwartz's gifts as a writer that the novel transcends cliches of violence and ultimately becomes a tale of survival, even in the most harrowing of circumstances.
The most perverse depiction of love in the bunch, unsurprisingly, is Jerry Stahl's Perv -- A Love Story (Morrow, $24), a novel that might better be subtitled "A Love Story of Polymorphous Perversity." Stahl is best known for his memoir of heroin addiction in Hollywood, Permanent Midnight, and it is no surprise that his novel begins with the discovery of the narrator, Bobby Stark, trying to retrieve a condom from the nether regions of a girl he has just shared with three of his prep school friends. Caught in the act by the girl's one-armed father. Bobby is expelled from school and sent home to live with his mother in her condominium. Bobby's father has recently committed "suicide by streetcar"; Bobby's mother frequently torments him with the notion that she knows Bobby wishes she were dead, a sentiment she initially spews at the viewing of his father's casket.
Set in the era of free love in 1970, the novel is full of drugs, sex and all things perverse. To escape the claustrophobia of life with his mother (who is addicted to pills and electro-convulsive therapy), Bobby smokes marijuana and visits the condo's laundry room, where he is caught sniffing an old woman's panties. In this absurdly comic scene, the woman nicknames Bobby "the perv," confirming something that he has long suspected about himself, and reveals that she is the grandmother of Michelle, Bobby's childhood love, who has joined and left the Hare Krishnas. On a whim, Bobby telephones Michelle. Their first contact with Michelle is also perverse: She urinates in a parking lot and asks him to wipe her with his hand. Then the two embark on an attempt to reach San Francisco. The journey culminates in a pages-long series of sexual violation and drug-induced horror that is not for the faint-hearted.
Despite its earlier comic ramblings and frequent laugh-out-loud hilarity, the love story is at times lost in the confusion of drug haze and acts of perversion. Clearly Stahl means to shock readers with his graphic descriptions of vile sex acts and drug-induced stupors, yet the effect of such scenes is often surprisingly diluted, rendering the novel often too pat and predictable. The love story is never fully realized, and one wonders whether Stahl would have been better-advised to remain with the coming-of-age tale, which is fraught with a good deal more comedy and, at times, a perverse sense of pathos.
Ode to Joy
Lastly, Richard Burgin's Ghost Quartet (Triquarterly/ Northwestern, $25.95) offers a love story that is, as the title suggests, a quartet rather than a triangle. Burgin, the editor of the highly esteemed literary journal Boulevard and author of seven previous books, tells the story of Ray Stoneson, a down-on-his-luck classical composer; his estranged girlfriend, Joy, a singer; the dynamic and manipulative Perry Green (the "successor to Bernstein"); and Perry's lover, Bobby. After meeting Perry Green at a party, Ray becomes involved in a homosexual tryst with Green in order to further his career while simultaneously healing his relationship with Joy.
Although the novel attempts to invoke a sense of mystery, the plot is all too clear from the beginning, despite its rapid-fire pacing. Throughout, Perry continues to seduce Ray with promises of success in exchange for sexual favors. The love between Ray and Joy is never fully developed to allow the reader to care when things fall apart, due to Ray's indiscretions. Similarly, the love story is weighted down with melodramatic dialogue and situations: Ray "was forced to realize that [Joy's] fragile trust was in his hands, the hands that had held the genitals of Perry Green just the night before." It is also odd that Ray never becomes introspective enough to question his own sexuality, which would add a deeper psychological layer to the novel. Still, Ghost Quartet succeeds in illuminating the drive, ambition and personal compromise necessary to achieve success in the difficult world of classical music, Ray's other great love. Whether readers are looking for hilarity or horror, perversity or pathos, the sensual or the sublime, there is much to be found in all four of these vastly different stories of love. It is clear that where love is concerned, there is still a great deal left to be said.
Laurie Foos's most recent book is the novel "Twinship."