"I think of him at night . . ." screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein opens her second novel, "Ex-Lover." "It astounds me that I'm here and he's not. At times like this I cannot imagine my stomach without his pressing against it. . . ."
Clearly, we are meant to read this novel as a memento mori. We are also meant to read it as an elegy, a long goodby to a love that's "dead and gone" as they say in country and Western songs. This may be difficult since the book has more to do with "cheatin' hearts."
Bergstein's heroine is Jessie Gerard, a "Playwright's Horizon playwright," who is happily married to Sam, an engineer. Jessie has recently suffered a number of losses--a rash of family deaths, the loss of a best friend to suicide, and the loss of her own creativity to writer's block. In an attempt at recovery, she has undertaken an assignment "for the worst magazine I read cover to cover."
She thinks she's slumming.
Her assignment is to cover a movie being shot on the streets of Manhattan. She covers more than that. Midway through the shoot, she takes a lover, the ex-lover of the title. He's got a fatal disease and she's got a fatal attraction. When a certain someone is found hacked to pieces, the phrase, "He's to die for" takes on a literal ring. We've got a plethora of suspects--among them the soon-to-be ex-lover. Given her killer prose, the playwright-heroine is not exactly above suspicion, either. After all, she does fantasize about her husband, ". . . with a sudden bite, crunch, could tear, destroy him. . . ."
Yes, that's our heroine . . . and she likes him.
Although the book's dust jacket describes it as a "thriller," the term "chiller" might be more accurate. "My blood ran cold" is an understandable readerly response to Gerard's cold-blooded descriptions of "lovers" past and present. For all her artistic credentials, Gerard is essentially a gutter fighter. Recalling the theater director she slept with on her way up--and again on his way back down--she reports:
"I was so full of throbbing expectation and careful notation that I scarcely noticed how indifferent it was . . . He came back years later. He needed me for his career, and that made him much more fervent in my bed."
Some of the nastier surprises in "Ex-Lover" spring from character development, not plot. Fighting with an actress who won't make a timely commitment to one of her plays, our playwright snaps, ". . . I can't wait for you a year for the play. It's about a woman in peak childbearing years."
As a heroine, Jessie Gerard is so relentlessly self-involved, so narcissistically self-centered, you begin to gather that the book is really about how lovable she is--not about whom she loves. How can she really love anyone when the whole point of focus is whether or not they love her?
Describing her dead lover, playwright Gerard muses, "My face grows warm to his look and I smile back, think I know what he is thinking watching me . . ."
Describing her initial meeting with Sam, her husband, Gerard again sees the encounter in very self-referential terms, "When I first saw Sam I said, 'Oh, I'll be all right.' "
Perhaps not coincidentally, she suffers from myopia and wears thick glasses, although she's got a fantasy to go with them: ". . . The thicker the glasses, the more inevitable it is that one of them will paw my backbone with his index finger and say, 'You know, under those big glasses, you could be a lovely woman.' "
With a focus as large as her talent, Bergstein could be a lovely writer. Instead, she has confined herself to that newest and nastiest literary genre, "Kiss and Yell," unfortunately a particular favorite among New York literary ladies.
As a genre, Kiss and Yell is characterized by the wrongs done to its heroines who are very special and should not be treated so badly. Villains tend to be ex-husbands or ex-lovers. Characters tend to be thinly disguised players in the novelist's own lives. Art bears such a close resemblance to life it seems Xeroxed. "Venting" is a primary function of Kiss and Yell. Evening the score--personally or professionally--is another. Psychologists of the "Get It Out" school would surely approve--especially since they often appear as minor, but sympathetic, characters.
Hell hath no fury like a writer scorned. Gifted writers Erica Jong, Ellen Schwaam and Nora Ephron, did not mince words, just meat, in describing their unhappy marriages. Retaliatory affairs would have seemed like mercy killings compared to the character assassinations accomplished with their poisoned pens. No wonder the pen is mightier than the sword. What swordsman could ignore the possibility of bad reviews?
Central to the successful practice of the Kiss and Yell genre is a withering sexual preoccupation on the part of our heroines. Former studio executive Susan Braudy, who numbers several prominent film makers on her romantic resume, skewered them (or their body double facsimiles) thoroughly in her book, "What the Movies Made Me Do."
Which title brings us to another convention of Kiss and Yell.
All Kiss and Yell heroines are innocent victims. If the movies didn't make them do it, then the sexual inadequacy or promiscuity of their husbands and lovers did. These are NICE GIRLS, make no mistake. They did not deserve what happened to them. Whatever they did in return (like write these books) was just to clear the slate. Those men needed to be shown they were accountable . . . .
Fine. If only our heroines held themselves accountable too. But no . . . .
When Jessie Gerard takes a lover, it is to spare her husband her excessive grief, heremotional dryness. At least, that's her story and we are asked to believe it.
"I wanted only to eliminate all the fluids that would have scalded him, bathed him in bitter acid . . . . I never saw it as having been unfaithful to Sam."
Of course not. As she is quick to tell us, both of her infidelities to Sam had to do with being true to herself and sparing him her Angst by medicating it with an extra-marital lover.
"I did what I had to do" is the sub-text of Kiss and Yell. "I slept with him to save my marriage."
As unbelievable as such rationalizations sound in print, there are people who believe them in real life. It would appear that who's who and what's what have very little in common--except, perhaps, "W."
Another oddity of the Kiss and Yell genre (KY for short) is that its practitioners tend to suffer a certain confusion about sex and food. Or perhaps about sex and nurturing. Oral sex is sandwiched in as often as possible. Sexual appetite and sexual gluttony become indistinguishable. To hear these heroines tell it, they are marvelously sexual themselves but frequently disappointed.
"A great appetite for life" is the euphemistic phrase--great appetite seldom implying selectivity. It is the stylistic convention of Kiss and Yell to "Tell All." . . . And "all" is sometimes more than the sexually squeamish might wish.
Eleanor Bergstein is a writer of power and ability, a shrewd, if sometimes shrewish, observer. ("He's lewd and funny, and looks--ugly as he is--as if he'll be a real woman lover in bed. Fat men often are.") Witty, angry, strident and seductive, she is sensual and sexual in her descriptions. To those who know her best as the screenwriter-co-producer of "Dirty Dancing," this sexual core should come as no surprise. As literary territories go, "colorful" and "off-color" lie awfully near to one another. They lead "adjacent lives" as Schwaam might put it, and the boundaries often become blurred.
Describing the shooting of a long awaited scene, Bergstein writes, ". . . there's a short burst of energy when we shoot it. And then it's over. Like buying a great nightgown for bad sex."
Yes, like Joan Rivers, she can be very funny.
Years ago, I sat on a sofa in Carl Bernstein's Washington apartment and listened to two New York Literary Ladies discussing a man who might best be described as a literary groupie. He collected Literary Ladies. Or they collected him. Having collected them, they dissected him--a conversational precursor to Kiss and Yell. Here is what I heard them say:
"Do you know X?"
"Without him I'm not sure I could have kept my marriage together the last two years."
For both speakers, X was an "ex-lover." I would say that they used the phrase loosely but perhaps calling someone your "lover" no longer implies love. In the world of "Ex-Lover," sexual exchange and love become indistinguishable. "Our fury was so great it turned into permanent loving," playwright Gerard tells us at the end. Our heroine was still deceiving poor old Sam. She was still describing a love of intrigue that smacked of a dangerous liaison. What's love got to do with it? I wondered.
As they say in the movies, I may be a little out of sync.