In the Cut
by Susanna Moore
Knopf, 180 pp., $21.00
Susanna Moore is the author of three previous novels, set for the most part in her native Hawaii: My Old Sweetheart (1982), The Whiteness of Bones (1989), and Sleeping Beauties (1993). Each is a novel of substance and achievement in the fullest Hawthornian sense—rich with “minute fidelity” to the socially ambiguous, physically seductive world, narrated with sensitivity and intelligence by young women who have broken with their mesmerizing pasts. Of the three, My Old Sweetheart is perhaps the most delicately realized, an elegiac reminiscence of an island childhood passed under the spell of the narrator’s charismatic but mentally unstable mother, who eventually kills herself. My Old Sweetheart is one of those elusive, shimmering works of fiction, bold, impressionistic, subtle, and mysterious, that resist paraphrase and summary, like Marilynne Robinson’s equally haunting first novel, House-keeping; like the prose of Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, the early stories of Eudora Welty. One is reminded too of Jean Rhys’s master-piece Wide Sargasso Sea, with its obsessive lyricism and mounting dread. The poisoned paradise of subtropical islands, for those of white skin! My Old Sweetheart evolves into something of a mystery as the narrator searches for her eccentric physician-father who seems to have disappeared into Cambodia as a medical relief worker, but the mystery is never resolved.
Perhaps because more structurally ambitious, with many more characters and settings, and many more discursive prose passages, Moore’s other two novels are less certain achievements; as if, in exorcising the spell of an island childhood, the author were casting off its power to spellbind as well. Yet, for the writer, there is no direction other than forward, outward. The historical/mythological/archetypal heritage of the past, however richer than the contemporary civilization beyond the island, is simply too much of a burden to be borne. Moore’s young women protagonists initiate themselves sexually as a way of self-definition, but the initiations are not always edifying. Mamie of The Whiteness of Bones thinks uneasily, in the minutes before, in fact, she is clumsily assaulted in a Chicago hotel room:
She had always suspected that the mistake of feminism was its refusal to admit the superior, undeniably superior, strength of men—not economic or political strength, that was another thing altogether—but the simple fact that at any moment, [a man] could reach over and snap her narrow wrist in two.
Leaving aside for the moment the fact that feminism has not exactly been unaware of male “superiority” in physical terms, and that the very foundation of feminism may be a reaction in defiance of this “superiority,” Moore’s passage is notable for its air of passivity, fatalism; it is consistent with Moore’s depiction generally in her fiction of unchallenged male aggression. The young woman narrator of Moore’s new novel In the Cut, inexorably drawn to “big, handsome” men who will abuse her, ponders the difference between male and female perversion: “The action of the man is directed toward a symbol, not himself …