Friday, December 22, 2006
Like male sexuality itself, They Whisper is occasionally sublime, at times confused, from time-to-time powerfully animalistic to the point of dangerousness, regularly pathetic, and more often than not a bit ridiculous. Butler has written a disarmingly honest book--sometimes painfully so--about male sexual fantasies, and about the failure of males to understand female sexuality. Ira Holloway is his 40-year-old protagonist, and Ira is a sensitive new age guy. He's no "player," but he's had many women. When he finally settles down and gets married, his wife turns out to have been sexually molested by her father, and this dark secret life drives her to a morbid Catholicism and eventual insanity.* The 'they' of Butler's title are Holloway's numerous past lovers, who exist within, and who present themselves continually in his current sexual encounters despite Ira's love for his wife. When she demands he respond only to her and to her physicality without resorting to internal images, memories, or ideals, Ira finds himself sexually paralyzed for the first time.
This is not a novel to breeze through at the beach. There's a lot of sex, some of it rendered erotically, and some of it hateful and disturbing. What most surprised me is the complete and utter absence of humor in the book. Sex is also funny, after all. Or it should be.
Above I used the possessive verb "had" to describe Ira's experience of women, and part of what Butler explores is the idea of sexual possession. One "takes," one "has" lovers--but is that really the case? Does one possess another, or merely an internalized ideal of the other? Ira fantasizes he can hear women's 'secret voices' when he fucks them, and there are pages and pages of these women's interior monologues that are, of course, actually Ira's imaginings of their interior monologues. I think this is an ingenious portrayal of the often interior nature of sexual intimacy (what we think of as shared intimacy is usually anything but). Many people--perhaps most--fantasize during sex, thus relegating their partners to a second-fiddle status in the actual sexual act. Ira creates elaborate narratives in his head, involving women he's had in the past, women he's only seen and desired in the briefest of moments, about the woman he's with in more ideal circumstances. All of this strikes me as interesting, as Butler is relating sex to the imaginative act of writing or creating art. Stephen Stills once sang about loving 'the one you're with' if you can't be with the Ideal who may or may not exist elsewhere; Butler's on the same track. Butler also explores sexuality using religion and incest and colonialism and the Viet Nam war metaphorically, with mixed results.
A difficult book, and perhaps an elaborate and interesting failure, but thought-provoking and at times sexy. ANY book tackling the fucked-up substance of male sexuality (which is far too often thought of in overly simplistic terms) is perhaps doomed to failure. Kudos to Butler for giving it a shot.
*The reader must bear in mind, of course, that Ira only understands his wife's sexual abuse through her "inner voice." We have no independent verification outside of Ira's internal monologue that it ever in fact happened at all.