What do Zoe & Douglas, Hugh & Sybil, Max & Catherine, Melody & Gordon, Jeremy & Belinda, Joan & Henry, and Warner & Becky have in common? They are the seven couples that form the sole focus of attention in Evelyn Lau's seven stories, collectively titled Choose Me
. Each of the couples is unequally matched, with the man at least twenty years older than the woman. When they first met, the man was in a position of authority and/or was conspicuously wealthy and well-connected. Hence the source of his attraction for the woman. This, and the fact that he was married/unavailable/uninterested made her pursue him until he succumbed to her advances, at which point, as the old story goes, he began to lose his hold on her imagination. She now feels ambivalent/numb/disgusted by her man's physical manifestation of old age, particularly during sexual encounters-and she's not one to hold back on the details of things that repulse her.
Actually, there are some differences among the various female narrators, their men, and their relationships to them. However, these differences are not deep enough to dispel the sensation of trudging through the same psychological territory. In some cases, the fantasy is still alive, the disappointment stage hasn't started (the object of attention is still involved with another woman); nevertheless, essentially the same relationship is being described in each of the seven stories.
Am I maligning a younger generation when I say that people in their twenties and early thirties might be more interested in this barren landscape than their elders? Or would it be tiresome for anyone at any age?
Certainly there is very little insight into their actions, by either the men or the women. These are not people who would understand the concept of self-control or of thinking before acting. They just do as impulse dictates, and then wonder why their love life isn't working out. At least, the women do. We aren't told what the men are thinking. Judging by their actions, though, either they aren't thinking much about anything or they're letting their masculine appendage do it all.
Now, there is a certain postmodern point of view that this book could be inhabiting. According to it, characters have no history and no context. The only moment that is important is now. There is a kind of lassitude, as if everyone were driving around on automatic pilot. Stuff happens. Then some more stuff happens. Some of it is interesting; some of it isn't. Maybe it amounts to something; maybe it doesn't. Then the story ends.
Personally, I think this is going to be a very short-lived literary fashion simply because it's really boring. It may have had some shock value in the beginning, but that is long gone, and what remains is flat, humorless writing, superficial characters, and plots with as much drama as a Steve Reich concerto.
However, it is possible that books like this one do what art is often said to do: reflect back to us our society as it really is and not as we would like to think it is. In that case, the dying days of the narcissistic Roman Empire had nothing on us. Perhaps Lau speaks for our place and time when she writes: "It seemed to Zoe that there had existed an opportunity for the world to prove to her that goodness would always triumph, but nothing had happened, and she felt lost".
Evelyn Lau's saving grace is her sudden felicity of phrase and vivid detail, captured like an insect's wing in amber. "He had let go of his penis without ejaculating, and now it bobbed anxiously in the air". "The kitchen was lit, all the polished surfaces winking at each other". "Jeremy continued ahead and Belinda was left to fend for herself against the family dog, who sniffed her crotch and unfurled a lascivious tongue".
These phrases and observations deserve a better setting than the creepy, claustrophobic relationships Lau describes in Choose Me.
Nikki Abraham is a Toronto writer.