Erotomania: A Romance, Francis Levy. Two Dollar Radio. 160pp, $14.00.
Erotomania: A Romance is not a book you can give as a gift. It just isn’t. For starters there’s the title, which is no red herring. And then there’s the cover, with its picture of two chimps copulating in the missionary position. Both of these, however, are tamer than the actual text, which right from the exceptionally tawdry beginning contains a generous amount of screwing. Despite A Romance being appended to the title, it’s definitely not lovemaking the two main characters are doing; having sex is way too benign, and not nearly comprehensive enough, to describe the goings on here.
Perhaps the best you can do, if you find yourself sharing my enthusiasm for this book, is to point people to it and let them decide for themselves. With a book like Erotomania, you have to decide for yourself if you’re going to read it, and even more, you have to decide if you’re going to be open enough to it to enjoy it. Deciding not to be open to it wouldn’t be the wrong choice, it’d just be your choice, and that I think, to a large degree, is what Levy is going for with his debut novel: nothing holds meaning in and of itself. Context is everything.
This is interesting because Erotomania’s story really establishes no context. From the very first sentence, the two main characters are having mindless, anonymous sex, and, in fact, both characters remain nameless until 60-plus pages into the book. I’ll refrain from using their names here, not because they are mnemonic or metaphoric but simply because that becomes the story’s first mystery. Identity always stems from a name. Who are these people? Or are they even people? One must wonder, because Levy’s narrative quickly picks up where the book’s cover leaves off in animalizing these two characters. The narrator (and male half of the couple) tells of not being able to even picture the girl he fiends for—he knows only what she feels like, and he himself asks:
What brought us back to each other? Animal memory is based on presence. A dog will run to his master, but from the neurological point of view he doesn’t have the ability to retain the image of his master when the master is not proximate. This is supposedly what separates man from beast, the process of subjectivization by which image is turned into memory (the price for this ability is that man is deprived of a certain truth since these retained memories are filtered through the distorting lens of consciousness).
The only piece of context for the book’s first 60 pages is implicit: the story is being told in the first person, so we know we must be reading about people who aren’t acting like normal people do. This begs the question, what’s normal? And more importantly, in the face of Levy’s authorial abdication, how does the implicit sense of normality that we bring to Erotomania impose our own context on the story? (While reading, it struck me that I had perhaps anthropomorphized these characters simply because I didn’t know how to understand their story in any other terms.)
Another question: what is Erotomania really about? The story starts post-coitus, takes little time getting back to the act, and by page 61 our two characters—now finally named—are still having ravenous, boundless sex. They soon move in together, where they promptly start breaking furniture and annoying the neighbors with their sexual exploits. They then move to a bunker where they can’t destroy the property or offend anyone else while ordering in Chinese food and, well, you can guess. They seldom leave, and rarely talk to anyone but each other (and not even that much to each other). The narrator comes to acknowledge that he is in an abnormal relationship and soon evolves enough to acknowledge the world around them: “If you want to become real people, you have to experience boundaries.” He is evolving alone, though, as the narrator’s partner sees no problem with the nature of their coupling. Nonetheless, she agrees to start seeing a couples counselor to work through the problem that all they do is screw. “Some degree of control, of repression, was necessary even in the little society that was our relationship.” She eventually takes some of the counselor’s suggestions and transfers some of her energy from sex to art and food. They gradually become something resembling a civilized couple, and it becomes clear the story’s arc resembles the evolutionary story of society as a whole: an outgrowth of social mores from the humble beginnings of our simple hunter/gatherer ancestors. Even as our leads become domesticated, though, they remain cartoonish. At no point do they ever truly appear to be real people. It seems Levy isn’t commenting on the characters so much as on the ideas they were created to embody.
In his 1998 novel, Identity, Milan Kundera has one half of a married couple remark: “our sexuality precedes our self-awareness.” Whereas Kundera concerns himself with the self-awareness of his lovers, Levy dwells on the sexuality. Kundera writes: “What is an intimate secret? Is that where we hide what’s most mysterious, most singular, most original about a human being? Are her intimate secrets what make Chantal the unique being he loves? No. What people keep secret is the most common, the most ordinary, the most prevalent thing, the same thing everybody has: the body and its needs, its maladies—constipation, for instance, or menstruation. We ashamedly conceal these intimate matters not because they are so personal but because, on the contrary, they are so lamentably impersonal.” It is inside the sentiment of this passage that Erotomania lives and breathes. Levy is trying to unashamedly put forth the prospect that we all have bodies that need and function in primarily the same ways, so to be shocked by what is described on his pages really makes no inherent sense. We already know this stuff; it’s social mores that dictate we don’t discuss it.
This means that Erotomania will be a highly subjective read. Depending on the context the reader imposes on the book, its straight-ahead, priaptic ferocity is either the main strength or the main drawback. This is a salacious story so unabashedly told that it just has to be about something else. And in that way it becomes the reader’s story, to be what he or she asks it to be. It can just as easily be a bookend to the beautifully nuanced prose of Milan Kundera as it can be a long-version story for a nudie mag minus the accompanying photographs. It’s all in the context—as it is with most relationships.
As all but a few of the most dedicated eventually learn, no relationship can sustain itself for any amount of time on only the stuff that inhabits the bulk of Erotomania, and Levy acknowledges this as his characters move into a more domesticated existence. In this way, by its dealing with the vicissitudes of enduring love, Levy’s novel treads the same territory Identity does. My tastes lean more toward Kundera’s tender, insightful prose, as when he writes: “Two people in love, alone, isolated from the world, that’s very beautiful. But what would they nourish their intimate talk with? However contemptible the world may be, they still need it to be able to talk together.” This speaks to both the absurdity of society and the necessity of it, to how, paradoxically, we are a selfish breed with base needs but yearn for companionship and love above all else. Therein lies the snag. Or as Levy writes, “When we had just been a [penis] and [vagina] our tastes hadn’t mattered, but now we were two separate people and I had to deal with the fact that she could be a pain in the ass when she didn’t get to see the program she wanted.” If nothing else, Erotomania will certainly give couples something to talk about.
Billy Thompson is a writer living in Media, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Confluence and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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