Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Here is a review of Obsession, my collection of fourteen erotic stories from Eternal Press (www.eternalpress.ca).

The review is by Dr. Steven Hart, veteran actor and professor of theater in New York. He is one of the staff reviewers for "Erotica Revealed," where this review is posted for the month of April, 2008.

Obsession is the topic and the title of Jean Roberta's new collection of short stories. She has got the title right, but the book does not deal with sexual obsession as I suppose most of us think of it. It is not a book about sexual fixation. It is about obsession as a state of being of which sex is a key part. Her principal characters fasten onto others in sexually obsessive ways but they want more from them than an orgasm. It is not at all certain they will get whatever it is, nor should one be too confident that fulfilling their desires is the best fate for them. In that sense, they are much like many of Shakespeare' s characters who yearn for some possession, conquest, or revenge in the name of completing themselves. That is often as much a flaw as it is an objective.

The best example of sexual obsession in Shakespeare is Lord Angelo in Measure for Measure. He has an uncontrollable desire to sexually possess Isabella, a votary in the strict order of St. Claire. It is precisely unyielding chastity which draws him on to her. He is completely aware of that, but he cannot help himself. Like many of Ms. Roberta's characters, Angelo's mania is driven by the fact that what he desires is what he would otherwise never allow himself. What is more, he would never have been possessed by that need if fate had not thrust the object of his desire in front of him.

In Jean Roberta's world, obsession is most often the result of existential disconnection, a sense of drift that the characters feel more than they see and sense more than they articulate. It is the low level uncertainty that I believe all modern people feel as we are barraged by irrational bits of information and formless disorder. Sex does not fulfill her characters as it gives them a way to define themselves, regardless of whether they like the picture that forms or not.

Her characters' problems cross all the lines of age, gender, and sexual proclivity. We may all be very different people in her mind, but we all come to the same dumb obstructions and forced turns in life. Her stories include gay and lesbian couples as well as straight sex. There is a fair amount of D/s and BDSM that is ranges from the overt to the symbolic. The greatest strength of these stories is the authenticity of the sexual play.

It is not that Roberta's writing is unusually graphic or clinical. They are not, even though the sex is often earthy, often mildly comic, and hotly detailed. Her sense of the erotic is highly sensual and she has a remarkable sensitivity to the emotional impact of scent, taste and touch. You feel the presence of a lover's body in these stories as a source of power, attachment, arousal and comfort. She uses sex as a deeply human form of faltering connection in an unreliable and harsh world.

The better stories in Obsession penetrate the superficially banal lives of middle-class Canadians. The stories range from incidents of the moment to broad political themes, but the resolution is never more than partial by design. Roberta is not trying to dig out the nasty – and tedious -- secrets of the bourgeois. She seems to me rather more interested in the ways in which the condition of being – and sexual being – evokes the conflicts that we can never fully understand or escape inside ourselves. That extends from erotic punishment in the form of racy spankings to the results of procreation, having children.

What do these things mean? They surely mean something, but what? We will never fully know. In that sense, sex in these stories defines itself as the medium of passion and affection. Why do we love and make love as we do? It is because that is who we are. I believe this passage from "Taste" reflects that very well :

"I wished I could tell Simone about my latest dreams and hear about hers, but that kind of exchange hadn't happened between us for years, and now it just didn't seem possible. Despite her attitude, her values, her portfolio and her apartment, she still seemed like a child in many ways. How much could she know about the kind of need that is too strong for politeness, discretion, or remorse? Ironically, she was the result of that kind of need, as perhaps all children are. Nonetheless, they rarely seem to understand it in themselves, let alone in us."

Overtly this story is about the abrasion created by the difference of a mother and daughter's sense of taste in such banalities as clothing. Unlike other author's Roberta does not use the quotidian as a clue to the deeper self. Here the mother deeply understands that their differences of taste deeply express the difference of their sense of the sensual and thus their view of the world. It is very moving to read because these are two intelligent likeable women speaking across an uncrossable gulf.

Ms. Roberta's style varies in quality. In a few cases, her writing becomes stiff if not rather starchy, as though she were over-explaining some nuance of literary irony to a class of dunderheaded undergraduates. As one can see though, the passage quoted above has a wonderful sense of flow and insight. It is nearly poetic. She sometimes has a hard time with dialogue. The nature of dialogue is that people do not say things when they talk. They talk to discover what they are saying.

"The Hungry Earth" is a about the Serlingesque misadventures of a gay couple in a cornfield. As any casual fan of sci-fi will tell you, grain is menacing stuff especially when it is still on the stalk. In this case, the narrator feels compelled to tell us that having abandoned the "liquid flesh" of his former wife, he sought, "to discover the good solid earth of another man." If the image were not painful enough, what he ends up with seems to be a twink who sweetly inquires, "I want to go to the farm today. Will you take me in a wheat field?" Apparently the old rake will because he replies, "My dirty boy. You sure you don't want a date with a sheep?" Heady stuff, eh?

"The Hungry Earth," however is the exception in this collection. I can only imagine that this story is as it is because it is so far from direct experience. She clearly does best with narrative environments that are based in the concrete and recognizable. It is in such places that her characters seem able to discover and expand their awareness, which is the reason Roberta sets them before us in the first place.

Just as Measure for Measure ends in shady resolution, many of Roberta's stories end in uncertainty. In some ways the stories remind one of "The Graduate" wherein there is a happy ending of sorts, but it is hard to say just what it is and what will become of the characters. The people of Roberta's world may well be perfectly comfortable with their fate; but the reader is hardly reassured, and we are not meant to be. What we do know is that the world of the characters has been shaken and disturbed by deep, obsessive tremors of eroticism.


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