In The Cut
by Susanna Moore
Alfred A. Knopf 180 pages $21
REVIEWED BY RODNEY WELCH
Susanna Moore may look like she's trying out for Joan of Arc on the dust jacket of her new book, but don't be fooled. Her idea of martyrdom is considerably more earthbound, and her fourth novel is a sensation in every way.
In the Cut is a sex and violence cocktail, an "erotic thriller" that gets you horny and makes you sick. It's like Oshima's film Empire of the Senses meets "NYPD Blue," with the kind of Grande Guignol ending I haven't seen since Jim Thompson's pulp classic Savage Night.
After you put it down and I read it nearly non-stop as soon as I got it from the library you may feel as I did: like you just crawled home from a faceless backstreet tryst, your senses all out of whack, not real sure the road of excess has left you anywhere near the palace of wisdom. (So says the Prufrockian hedonist who wouldn't know a backstreet tryst if he stepped on one.)
The anonymous narrator is a 34-year-old divorcee who divides her time between teaching an inner-city creative writing class and compiling a dictionary of street slang. A sometime erotic daredevil, she also views sex the same way she does writing and spelling: once you know the rules, they're yours to break.
Her latest escapade begins when she joins a student for an after-class visit to a local bar. Making her way to the ladies' room, she opens the wrong door to find a dazzling redhead on her knees before some shadowy male, both way too busy to tell her to scram.
Like the (also unnamed) voyeuristic narrator of Cynthia Ozick's novel Trust who watched her long-lost father mount his new girlfriend and mused, "I felt as though I was watching the style of my own creation" this blow-job crasher can't resist taking notes: "I thought to myself, oh, I don't do it that way, with a hitch of the chin like a dog nuzzling his master's hand. The sound of her mouth was loud. She gave a little sigh and shifted her weight, quickening her movement."
By the next day, the fellatrice is dead and not just dead but "disarticulated," or pulled limb from limb. The narrator, along with others in the bar, is questioned. She doesn't immediately say what she saw, and for good reason the investigating detective is just possibly the same man who was getting his knob so efficiently polished in the back of the bar. He's also damn good-looking, and once our narrator is alone, she can't keep her hands off herself.
It isn't long, of course, before she's riding the real thing, and this Detective Malloy more than lives up to her libidinal specs, that rare gumshoe who knows more about a woman's clitoris than she does.
He can even instruct her by phone in the intricacies of masturbation, even though she's something of an old hand at it.
Malloy, in other words, keeps her going and coming, taking her to the limits and past them, straight into the red zone between keeping control and losing it. A rough-sex episode late in the book, complete with handcuffs and rear entry, shows just how skillfully Moore can navigate this kind of sexual vertigo, where the fear of falling is very nearly equated by the desire for it: " What are you doing?' I whispered. Even though I knew. It was as if I had to pretend that I did not know what he was about to do to me. Opening what was closed. Insisting. Fixing me. Unsealing me. At last. I who did not wish to belong to anyone. I did not want to be fixed, to be held down, the closed opened, the heart broken. I wanted to be fixed, to be held down. Opened. The old longing to be chosen, pursued, fought for, called away."
What Moore is getting at what every writer of erotica since de Sade, I guess, gets at sooner or later is the nature of possession and the romantic longing for the last orgasm, the one powerful enough to kill you. (Oshima's lovers try to heighten the sensation by strangulation. I had a college friend who tried the same thing solo, with tragic consequences.)
I don't know if Moore gives a rip for Camille Paglia, but the book also has a certain Paglian ring to it. It was Paglia, a few years ago, who laid out the theory in Sexual Personae that Western art is inherently pagan, a celebration of a natural world where sex is the Conqueror Worm eating you up and spitting you out in parts and pieces, like that ant-ridden ear tossed to the weeds in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.
Moore's tale, too, ends in body parts, and it left me with a queasy admiration, the kind you get for any narrative that follows a disturbingly logical course from flesh to blood. In the Cut is a hypnotic wet nightmare.
Rodney Welch frequently writes about books and movies for POINT.
What Moore is getting at - what every writer of erotica gets at sooner or later - is the nature of possession and the romantic longing for the last orgasm, the one powerful enough to kill you.