Just about every female character in the book is a gorgeous, willowy thing in a satin cocktail dress. They either ache to be dominated by a cruel alpha male, or they play perverse sexual games that involve humiliating the beta males. The stories tend to be told from the male characters' point of view, so they lack insight into why the women behave this way. Meanwhile, the male characters fall into two varieties: aggressive and horny alpha males or shy nice-guy beta males. That's reductive, to be sure. But at least the men are not objectified the way the women are.
Kissing in Manhattan is a collection of male sexual fantasies disguised as middlebrow literary fiction. And that's not what I bargained for.
The book begins with the short "Checkers and Donna," about a woman who has always secretly wished to "belong to a man," and has rape fantasies. Donna finally meets her match in Checkers, a crude and loud man who drives a muscle car. I thought this story was pretty weak, but I wasn't ready to write off the whole book just because of one story that was built around "men are from Mars and women are from Venus" nonsense. Who knew what the rest of the collection would hold?
But the second story, "Jacob's Bath," made clear that the attitude of "Checkers and Donna" ("Goddamnit, who the hell do you women think you are?... Don't you understand how perfect it is when a guy says 'Hey, sexy mama' to a girl because that's all he can say?") was not a one-off. In this story, the character of Rachel Wolf is praised for being a loving and loyal wife and mother, who gives her husband Jacob a bath every night:
The woman was there to strengthen the man, to quench his thirst, and the man loved the woman and he was grateful. It wasn't about equity: Jacob never bathed Rachel. He was ready to perform a lifetime of chores for her, but this isn't about that [...]And meanwhile, Rachel's friend Susan, a high-powered New York Times editorial columnist, is denigrated for being a spinster who actually cares about the world at large:
[Rachel] told how Jacob's bath wasn't about sex, but about devotion, and love. She even admitted, because she thought her friend needed her to, that Jacob had once had an affair, an affair she'd known about the entire time it went on. [...]
"The bastard," whispered Susan.
Rachel stiffened. "He was home every night for his bath."
"But he lied to you! He was cheating!"
Rachel stared at her friend, who didn't understand men.
"I was devoted to him," she said evenly. "I was his wife, and I loved him. The affair stopped."
She was well into her sixties, and she'd never married, or been to Disneyland, or learned to sing. Instead, she'd drawn a bead on the large, savage habits of the globe: murder, extortion, hatred, crimes against women and the earth. She'd stared long at these awful truths. The problem was, as Nietzsche said, when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. That New Year's morning Susan March made a terrible realization: she craved baseness. Some fiber of her soul longed to kill, as Mr. Bruce did, or to cleanse countries with napalm, or to be taken viciously by a man on the steps of a church. Not only did Susan want these atrocities, she wanted them so badly that she'd never erected the means to fight them off. She had no husband, no children, no balm to ease her days. And her arrogance, her pride in her lifelong, clear-eyed independence, died hard that New Year's morning.And it goes on from there. A story about a gorgeous paralegal who gives her employer a bad case of blue balls ("Serendipity"). Several stories about Patrick Rigg, who ties a different naked, beautiful woman to his bed every night.
Schickler got his book deal for Kissing in Manhattan on the strength of his short story "The Smoker," published in The New Yorker's debut fiction issue. And "The Smoker" is indeed a pretty great story, and the highlight of this collection: funny, absurd, good dialogue. I had read it in a New Yorker short-story anthology, and it had made me curious to read more of Schickler's work. But unfortunately, when placed in the context of the rest of Kissing in Manhattan, "The Smoker" becomes less enjoyable. It is the story of 31-year-old Douglas, a nebbishy English teacher at a private girls' school, who gets invited to dinner chez Nicole, his brightest student. Then Nicole's parents announce that they want to arrange a marriage between their daughter and her teacher. It's an entertaining tale, but at the same time, isn't it just one more sexual fantasy? Nicole is not as powerless nor as submissive as some of Schickler's other female characters, but she's still too good to be true: a beautiful, brilliant 19-year-old who just wants to make her lonely English teacher happy.
Of course male authors should be allowed to let their sexual fantasies inspire their writing. But they need to be honest that that is what they are doing. Kissing in Manhattan was billed as tender and charming and romantic, but as a woman, I found that there was nothing for me in it. The whimsy and magical realism of this book coexists uneasily with its lubricious side.
Furthermore, a more talented or risk-taking author would interrogate his sexual fantasies, not just produce fiction that replicates his favorite erotic scenarios. He would ask why men and women are drawn to dominance and submission and other forms of erotic games-playing. He'd come up with more satisfactory motivations for his characters' kinks and quirks (and also dial down the overall amount of quirkiness in his book). He might write about a woman like Rachel Wolf--after all, in the real world, women exist who know their husbands are having affairs but don't utter a peep--but he would make her a more complex character, rather than viewing her as perfect and saintly.
My friend was right. Kissing in Manhattan is indeed the kind of short fiction that makes the bestseller list. I hope it's happy there, in the company of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer.