Thy Neighbor’s Wife
by Gay Talese
Doubleday, 568 pp., $14.95
Poor Reich and the other crazies used to think that sex, proper orgasms, and so forth constituted a challenge to power, to the bourgeois order: a freer fuck means a freer world. Plodding along the trail marked out by the high priest of the orgone box comes Gay Talese with the same assumption.
Orgasms as such do not interest him too much, as against the property/possession/power relations amid which the O, big, little, copious or casual, takes place. The smut-hound, dipping into Thy Neighbor’s Wife in bookshop or library, won’t find much to induce tumescence. Though the book purports to be a saga of sex liberation, of society’s journey upward toward the light, Talese is not interested in sensuality, the erotic, or the perverse.
In fact the book is terribly sedate. He has a concept of sex as “recreation,” rather like the other great postwar bourgeois obsession, tennis. Singles, or doubles, a good fast serve, netplay, game, set and M-A-A-A-T-C-H. Then back to the nuclear nest and more deeply felt, improved netplay with the Missus.
The dark god can be found in the index, wedged between “Peeping Toms” and “Pennsylvania.” This is Mr. “Penis” who has the modest distinction of getting three references. Talese’s normally lackluster prose takes on a modicum of energy when dealing with Mr. P.
…it does indeed seem to have a will of its own, an ego beyond its size, and is frequently embarrassing because of its needs, infatuations and unpredictable nature. Men sometimes feel that their penis controls them, leads them astray, causes them to beg favors at night from women whose names they prefer to forget in the morning. Whether insatiable or insecure, it demands constant proof of its potency, introducing into a man’s life unwanted complications and frequent rejection.
Talese’s contemplation of Mr. P then takes on the rhythm of a job application.
Qualifications: “Sensitive but resilient, equally available during the day or night with a minimum of coaxing….”
Previous Experience: “…it has performed purposefully if not always skillfully for an eternity of centuries, endlessly searching, sensing, expanding, probing, penetrating, throbbing, wilting, and wanting more.”
Character Testimonial: “Never concealing its prurient interest, it is a man’s most honest organ.”
Hired! Mr. P, our society has had its troubles with your sort in the past, and frankly some members of the screening committee here think we’d be better off without you. But we’re a forward-looking company, and I’m sure you’ll fit in.
Though Mr. P gets the job, Talese is still bothered about him. “It is also symbolic of masculine imperfection…. It is very vulnerable even when made of stone, and the museums of the world are filled with herculean figures brandishing penises that are chipped, clipped, or completely chopped off.” This sentence, parsed literally, must mean that there are statues where Mr. P, broken off from the crotch, is being hoisted aloft in the hand—which slip nicely illustrates the …