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. The woman acts against herself.” “In the cut” means, quite bluntly, “in the cunt.” Yet “cut” with its implications of slashing, maiming, is very much to the point.
Where Moore’s Hawaii-generated novels are lush, sensuous, capacious in their sympathies, In the Cut, set in a New York City imagined as an anteroom to Hell, is minimalist in both concept and execution. For Moore, as for many novelists, physical settings have the potency of characters, and In the Cut is very much dominated by its gritty urban background. Some of the strongest passages in this generally rather underdeveloped novel have to do with place; or, more accurately, with the tremulous intersection between person and place, as if “place” had the power to infiltrate soul.
I stood on the street, smelling the diesel from the trucks on the West Side Highway and the odor of brine from the Hudson River, too faint to be really pleasing, and that particular New York smell, at least in summer, of urine….
As I walked north, cars shooting past now and then like noisy comets, I decided I would not mind excessively the seeing of a rat (Pauline once saw hundreds of them pour out of a Con Edison hole at the corner of Desbrosses and Hudson and undulate in ripples across the cobbled street and then undulate back again, diving into the hole as if the Pied Piper himself had summoned them back), but I would not be very happy to hear a rat. The sound fills me with particular dread. It is a high, beseeching call, like that of newly hatched birds, and it causes my hair to stand on end.
In this city stray men urinate publicly, sometimes on the very doorstep of the (unnamed) protagonist’s Washington Square apartment building. Other men, including one of her writing students at NYU (where she teaches a single course, presumably as an adjunct), are overly attentive to her and may even be following—stalking?—her. Moore’s New York is a city in which it is distressing but not inordinately surprising to learn that the mutilated body of a young woman has been found virtually across the street from one’s apartment, in Washington Square Park. Yet X, the protagonist, never draws the blinds to windows that are open to the street and even sleeps, as she informs an investigating NYPD homicide detective, with her windows open. Though a psychotic serial killer appears to be operating in the city, she continues to walk alone at night in deserted neighborhoods.
She meets her cynical, shopworn friend Pauline (“Her sexual swagger is only the convention of a woman who suspects that there is little hope for happiness with a man, and who hedges her bet by pretending that she is grateful to be alone”) in a singularly disagreeable place called the Pussy Cat which is patronized mainly by truckers and “downtown artists who think it’s cool to be in a bar filled with truckers” and staffed by topless waitresses, of whom one has mastered the knack of “lifting paper money, preferably twenties, from the bar-top with her vagina.” (“[Tabu] offered to teach me the vagina trick but I explained I had trouble enough with situps.”) X has journeyed a long distance from her sketchily recalled Philippine childhood.
X presumably represents the elusiveness of self, the emptiness, the “cut” at the core of the female in an overwhelmingly male, and violent, world. She declares that she is not a masochist even as she acknowledges that her passivity rejects an “expectation of causality” that might result in the drift into “a certain collusive masochism.” Moore’s implication is that the drift is cultural, collective, and not individual. Physiognomy, too, is presented as destiny: X identifies with her body (as perceived and acted upon by men), and for a woman, in the claustrophobic genre of erotic horror at least, the body is solely the sexual being, the female genitalia. Or is X unusually unlucky? Her former husband, a photographer, seems to have been even more sinister than her homicide detective lover, having nagged her for years to allow him to “realize his life’s ambition of photographing a scorpion in my vagina.” (“I’m sick of beauty,” this absent male has said, though there is no evidence that he has tried it.) X’s meager memories of her absent father involve his having literally abandoned her in a hotel room in Geneva when she was thirteen years old, and his pornography collection in which she’d discovered a print of a geisha “with the heel of her bare foot in her vagina.”
In The Whiteness of Bones, following a violent sexual assault which for some reason the young heroine Mamie does not report to police, she seems to blame not the drug-addled assailant but herself, in fact not herself but her genitalia: “It is what started everything, you know, all my trouble, a vagina…. The bad thing is, I don’t know what I can do about it.” In a delirium of self-loathing she muses, “Vagina as fate. Vagina as fight. Vagina as fête.”
Intermittently, through X, Susanna Moore demonstrates a flair for witty, understated irony in the manner of Joan Didion, but overall X’s lack of self-definition weakens the novel. It is difficult to believe in X as a coherent character and not rather a floating cluster of impressions, ideas, memories, and a physical body to which things are done by others, namely men; a sequence of artful notebook entries, perhaps, by a mordantly gifted writer living in New York City in debased times. Often, despite her alleged intelligence, X behaves not only stupidly, but inexplicably; unless her desire to fall prey to a marauding male is meant to explain everything. It is as if Muriel Spark had imagined the frenzied, doomed anti-heroine of The Driver’s Seat as passive, endearingly “feminine”—the perfect victim, in other words. X lacks even the self-destructive energies of Judith Rossner’s lonely school-teacher in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which In the Cut recalls.
Closet admirers of I LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman will be intrigued by NYPD Detective Jimmy Malloy, a Vietnam veteran in his late forties with a flair for macho speech and even more macho sexual behavior. Like the notorious Fuhrman, Malloy serves as a swaggering initiator into a sinister world of police ethics and comportment for a young woman university instructor and writer who becomes enthralled by him and the slang with which he and his fellow NYPD officers define the world. Where Laura Hart McKinny seems to have maintained a skeptical distance between herself and the boastful racist Fuhrman, however, over the course of their sixteen-hour taped interview, X is infatuated with Malloy at their first meeting. (He has come to interview her regarding the brutal murder/”disarticulation” of the young woman whose body has been found in Washington Square Park.) X’s attraction to Malloy is immediately sexual, to his macho self, and romantic, the yearning of the weakly passive for the strong, unpredictable male. Attaching herself to Malloy, X begins to assemble a dictionary of police slang: “The words themselves—in their wit, exuberance, mistakenness, and violence—are thrilling to me.” The dictionary entries, interspersed through the narrative, are a measure of X’s increasingly obsessive involvement with Malloy. They constitute a jarring poetry of assault:
virginia, n., vagina (as in “he penetrated her virginia with a hammer”)
snapper, n., vagina
gash-hound, n., someone who loves gash
brasole, n., vagina (from the Sicilian? bresaola? cured meat?)
to knock boots, phr., to have sexual intercourse
to do, v., to fuck
to do, v., to kill
smudge, n., black person
Ape Avenue, n., Eighth Avenue (police slang)
cocola, n., black person (Puerto Rican word)
spliv, n., black person
to pull a train, v., to have group sex, gang-bang
dixie cup, n., a person who is considered disposable
hamster, n., black person (Bronx word)
to get some pink, phr., to have sexual intercourse
bloodclot, n., worst possible insult in Jamaican slang
The suspense of In the Cut has much to do with the reader’s suspicion that Detective Malloy may be the serial killer he and his handsome partner “Richie” Rodriguez are looking for. Is it a clue, or meant to mislead, when Malloy describes “disarticulation” to X: “It is when an arm or a leg is pulled out of the joint, not cut, not sawed, but pulled out…. It makes a funny sound.” Certainly Malloy is not a model of integrity: “[He] lies to bosses. Lies on the stand. He boasts about it. Lies under oath. It’s called testilying, he’d told me.” In a less cynical time, Jimmie Malloy would be a “rogue cop”—a sub-species of “rogue male”—but the term has become anachronistic. “Rogue” suggests isolation, a romantic estrangement or expulsion from the herd; the police officers of In the Cut, like those Los Angeles officers for whom Fuhrman would seem to have been a spokesman, are herd animals themselves, bonded by deeply entrenched attitudes and acts of racism, sexism, casual and continuous violation of police ethics. Though necessary for the development of the plot, X’s awe for these macho swaggerers is not treated ironically and rather quickly begins to grate.
In the Cut is advertised by its publisher as an “erotic thriller,” which seems harshly reductive for a work of serious literary ambition. (“Erotic horror” seems to me the more accurate, more inclusive category, if categorizing is required.) On the whole, however, it’s a fair assessment, given the exigencies of plot and the sketchiness of X’s character. In genre works of this kind, essentially cinematic in outline, plot is the engine that relentlessly drives character, as in literary fiction character is usually the engine that drives plot. Everything must move swiftly forward along action/ suspense lines to a dramatic denouement that should both surprise the reader and explain, if not resolve, the mystery. Probability in the Hawthornian sense—“the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience”—is sacrificed in servitude to plot. Would a seasoned veteran like Jimmy Malloy really allow himself to be handcuffed to a chair by his skittish lover? (This curious scene replicates an equally curious scene in The Whiteness of Bones, when Mamie handcuffs herself to a chair out of what seems to be masochistic whimsy. She can only be freed from her self-imposed bondage by a man.) Equally improbable is the total lack of awareness of AIDS among X’s well-educated, sexually promiscuous New York friends. And would even a closet-psychotic homicide detective leave his victims’ bodies in his own jurisdiction? Nor is the clichéd cinematic scene avoided in which the (male) stalker accosts the (female) victim as she walks alone, at night, on West Broadway:
Clothed not in the black suit of an undertaker, not even black-skinned, but in some black and shiny material like plastic, or, more terrifying, rubber, an arm wrapped casually, easily around my neck. My head was yanked back, my neck pulled taut, a hand over my gaping mouth.
He wore a black stocking mask, black holes for eyes. There was a strange odor on his gloves, like glue or acetone. Formaldehyde.
No prose can be equal to the task of resuscitating the too-familiar another time.
For all that In the Cut is clearly a lesser literary achievement by a fine writer, marred by inconsistencies of voice, anorexic in its sketchiness, and frequently mechanical in its genre-driven plot, it is also powerful, shameless (or fearless) in its depiction of female passivity in the face of ubiquitous male aggression. Here is a repudiation in a sense not merely of mature womanhood but of personhood itself, with its obligations of personal responsibility and integrity. To allow others, of the category “male,” to identify one in terms of one’s genitalia, is to invite death. X, no surprise to the reader, is X’d out. It seems to have been her deepest, not quite secret wish, like that of the enthralled heroine of The Story of O, whose final request is for extinction and whose final happiness is her lover’s fulfillment of that request.
November 16, 1995