What do men think women think about sex? There are more than enough ways to find out, and that overabundance is what gave editors Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza, Stacy Bierlein, and Kat Meads the idea for their new anthology of short fiction by female writers, Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience (Other Voices). The four argue that
while male authors have traditionally felt comfortable inhabiting female characters sexually—that is, writing about sex from a woman’s point of view—the cross-gender imagining hasn’t gone the other way. Women don’t as often write about sex from the point of view of male characters. And no wonder. Critics didn’t mind that her 2001 novel, Girl Beside Him, was a book-length attempt to write from a man’s perspective, says Mazza in an introductory essay. But her male editors did. One commented on the manuscript, “Men don’t think about their erections like this.”
When I told my boyfriend I was reading Men Undressed, he worried that it sounded too Men Are From Mars-esque—another insipid installment in the battle-of-the-sexes genre, bemoaning the gendered hands we’re dealt. But the book’s contributors embrace their task with elan, and little of the facile stereotyping that could attend such a politically charged project. This may be because the rubric here—men, sex—is a loose fit. Some of the best pieces are the most elliptical, relating only obliquely to sex. Elizabeth Searle’s “And a Dead American” considers life post-9/11 through the eyes of an eighth-grade boy who discovers a Muslim family in his neighborhood keeping a young Vietnamese girl captive. In Vicki Hendricks’s hilariously hard-boiled “Boozanne, Lemme Be,” a small-time crook called Junior develops an affection for the Lamberts, a married couple whose house he enjoys while they’re away at work. He cleans up, he feeds the cat. But his domestic equilibrium is disrupted by the interventions of greedy Boozanne, a woman he meets at a bar. Junior is forced to choose between her and the Lamberts.
Men Undressed is populated by sympathetic adulterers and hapless porn connoisseurs whose relationships have been degraded by longevity. After a fight with his wife, the protagonist of Nava Renek’s “Mating in Captivity” returns to his favorite Internet attraction. “Roxanne77 was on screen,” Renek writes, “and he clicked on the photo of her sitting legs spread open toward him in a wide V. V for victory. V for variety. V for verisimilitude.” “The Gold Cure” by Jennifer Egan features a middle-aged depressive who learns that the Aztecs combined gold and coffee to bolster their sexual potency. He tries it, of course—an anodyne for his anomie—and of course it doesn’t work.
Anxiety also infects some of the more explicit pieces, like “Erasure,” Christine Lee Zilka’s tale of sex during wartime, and Lidia Yuknavitch‘s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” in which an older man (named Bosch, interestingly enough) falls for a pimple-faced boy. Both stories are dirty writing done well. “He closes his eyes and when he comes it is into the mouth of the young and beautiful world,” writes Yuknavitch. “He is lost there. A boy’s mouth takes him out of himself.”
The last thing this book needs is a self-flagellating contribution from a sensitive New Age guy, but that’s the first thing it’s got. Steve Almond’s foreword manages to condense a great many cliches about gender, sex, writing, and even capitalism into just a few pages. “Gone are the days of hunting and gathering, replaced by passive tabulation, cubicles, traffic, tranquilizing screens,” Almond offers by way of diagnosing the Modern Male Condition. “On weekends, we stalk the grocery aisles for shrink-wrapped prey.” Forget the grocery—this is more like dime-store psychology. It’s odd here in that it’s undermined by the book that follows, in which writers find the modern sexual condition to be much more fluid. Taken together, the stories in Men Undressed don’t so much respond to a gendered imbalance in fiction as they subvert it. Good writing about sex isn’t really about sex or gender, they seem to suggest. It’s about good writing.
Whether she meant to or not, editor and Reader contributor Kathie Bergquist makes a point about the strength of the local queer literary scene in her new collection, Windy City Queer: LGBTQ Dispatches From the Third Coast (University of Wisconsin Press). Her most celebrated contributor—writer and literary critic Edmund White, who lived here long ago—doesn’t supply the strongest entry. Not by a long shot. The book is uneven on the whole, but one of its pleasures is the prowess of some of its less-than-famous contributors.
In his witty poem “The Anarchist Potluck,” Aldo Alvarez uses the titular event to contemplate how his lifestyle differs from those of his interlocutors. But that’s not all he contemplates: “The pimento used to be / such a party vegetable,” he observes as he prepares his contribution to the meal. “I wonder what happened.” In Allison Gruber’s strange “Zoo Mountain,” a teen girl is possessed of dual interests, zoologist Dian Fossey and Gorillas in the Mist on the one hand and the girl’s crush, Josephine, on the other. Animals and young love are also at the heart of Rose Tully’s “Whales,” a realist tale except for one thing—whales walk the earth.
Where most of the characters in Men Undressed worry about love and sex as they face middle age, this volume contains a preponderance of entries about youthful relationships and bygone gay scenes (e.g., Boystown, way back when). Nostalgia isn’t always the most compelling mode for capturing a scene that’s not, after all, dead yet, and some of the pieces fall flat. But I liked the irreverent, unhinged styles of writers like Gruber and Tully, who elegantly capture teenage ambition and confusion.
Whales aside, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s an essay and what’s a story here. Nothing is marked as such, and the sections are identified by theme: “Intersections,” “Family Matters,” etc. Some readers will find this irritating, but I didn’t mind it. Certainly a flair for the dramatic is a hallmark of gay cultural production. It’s fun to see it at work here, obscuring the distinction between fiction and fact.