Transgressive Art

Is fiction the only way to consider issues beyond the pale?

Posted Aug 12, 2020

While under home detention, if I’m in for a slow day, I read the book reviews featured on the front page of The New York Times website, buy one of the reviewed works through Kindle on Amazon, and quickly dispatch it that day or the next. And that’s how I have read The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey, and A Saint from Texas by Edmund White.

Both are fun, engaging reads — with qualifications.

Spoiler alert: Both books, in what amounts to their afterwords, depict the suicides of key young characters. These casualties don’t involve one of the narrators — identical twin sisters in Saint, two brothers, and a sister in Field. So we are spared that.

But they are shocking nonetheless. In addition, none of the adult siblings has a stable intimate partnership (other than their home families, which is a decidedly mixed blessing in the case of Saint, as we shall see).

And the women (let’s just focus on the three sisters in the two novels) don’t live idealized sex lives in terms of current American values. That is, these books, as fiction, express a greater degree of latitude than some readers may be comfortable with.

In the less transgressive of the two books, the daughter in Field, Zoe, just turned 16, actively initiates a sexual relationship with a 23-year old advanced college student; he is currently engaged simultaneously in an affair with a married woman in her thirties.

But the relationship is not portrayed as exploitive (they end up living together for years), or as out of the ordinary. Just a search for a soulmate. 

The novel is set in Britain; so perhaps that accounts for what might be considered unacceptable permissiveness in the U.S. For example, when 16-year-old Zoe feels she has been stood up by her lover at a community entertainment, she “stationed herself near the mulled wine and filled a mug to the brim. She emptied it in a few swift swallows and refilled it.” (Her mother is nearby.)

But, as I said, Field is mild-mannered compared to Saint. In the latter, twin sisters Yvette and Yvonne are raised in Texas. While still young, Yvonne moves to Paris and, a virgin, marries an impoverished aristocrat. Yvette moves to Latin America as a missionary and eventually receives her orders as a nun.

But, otherwise a virgin, she does have a love affair with a naive, uneducated Phillipino nun. Her Catholic precept, a priest, excoriates her — in good part because he also loves Yvette and is jealous.

None of the relationships in this triad is portrayed as exploitive; they are based on genuine feelings, as difficult as these are to realize in their religious cloister.

Yvonne branches out somewhat more. A virgin when she is married at 20, she is careful to bathe thoroughly for the kind of sexual activity her husband prefers — one that wasn’t described in my 1960s middle school personal hygiene class.

But she soon expands her horizons as she becomes alienated from her polite but duplicitous husband. She first initiates a dominatrix affair with another man, then brings another woman into the mix.

Worried about her husband’s threats around custody, Yvonne . . . well, she murders him by pushing him over a wall. And the reader is made to sympathize with this “solution.”

She is advised to kill her husband by her spiritual mentor, an older priest who is actually an Egyptian Jew who has a younger male lover. Yvonne then begins dating freely, including a boy she knew in high school in Texas when she was more reserved, but with whom she now jumps in bed. In general, in her current life, Yvonne is considerably freer and more demanding of her lovers. Rating them to her spiritual guide, the Egyptian priest, she describes their endowments, staying power, and skill at pleasuring her. The priest recommends against marrying any of them.

Remember, however, that her own daughter will shoot herself in the head.

And, yet, both books are well-written, insightful, and deal seriously with issues of intimacy, family commitment, and making peace with oneself.

Which brings up the most challenging aspect of Saint. Yvette’s and Yvonne’s father has forced a sexual relationship with Yvette since she was a girl. Although this has obviously affected her whole life, she doesn’t reject her father. Rather, he is depicted as an unforgivably needy man who was himself abused as a child, but who is nonetheless devoted to his family.

If this strikes readers as author White’s seeming to excuse the perpetrator of this atrocity, then this book can be considered unforgivable — both immoral and psychologically slighting and offensive.

As a social-psychologist, I wonder how such books are written by successful novelists and positively reviewed in the Times (with their more salacious details omitted). I consider if it is only through fiction that we may observe and examine behaviors that otherwise are hidden from view in America, but that nonetheless occur — perhaps not uncommonly.

Is it only through fiction that we may learn how people cope with such experiences, for better and worse?