Trailing clouds of continental glory, a French success warmly welcomed in England, “Women” may be the first pointillist post-feminist novel. Eschewing complete sentences as a dreary bourgeois convention, Philippe Sollers uses triple dots as the all-purpose punctuation mark. At an average of, let’s say, 125 per page, that idiosyncrasy adds up to approximately 80,000 for a book of this length.
Dots . . . Of course, Seurat used dots to create spectacular neo-impressionist paintings, so there is a definite precedent for this artistic experiment. Writers have been slow to follow suit, perhaps because the technique requires that the work be viewed at a distance of at least 10 feet--easy enough when one is looking at a painting, considerably more demanding when reading a book. Perused from a mere foot away, even a masterpiece like “Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte” turns into confetti.
Read in the usual way, “Women” splinters into frank pornography. Considered in perspective, it’s easily the most ferociously misogynist tract since John Knox’s “First Blasts of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” in 1558. Unlike Knox, who was merely inveighing against Mary Queen of Scots, Sollers is attacking the entire sex. Arrogant, emotionally frigid and pathologically self-indulgent, the narrator continually marvels at his own sexual prowess and its magical effect upon the women he treats with such contempt, loathing his conquests for adoring him.
The protagonist of this first-person diatribe is Will, an expatriate American journalist living and working in France. His sexual odyssey takes him all over the world . . . a paranoid Priapus compulsively jetting to his own destruction.
When the hejira begins, Will has already decided that female sexuality is synonymous with death, a hypothesis he continually tests by fornication, each experiment reinforcing his pre-existing theory. The record will eventually form a novel to be called “Women,” though the fieldwork consumes so much of his energy that there’s little left for the actual writing. (What we have here may be the notes.) The subjects represent all nationalities, ethnic strains and cultures, the list constantly expanding. By page 157, we’ve seen him in action with Cyd, Lynn, Flora, Ysia, Jane, Helen, Dora, and Barbara . . . a veritable U.N. of women alone and in combination, though we haven’t yet met his wife, the learned and loyal Deborah, mother of Will’s son Stephen. “How crazy not just to stay quietly at home with them . . . Not to just accept that particular death . . . The only one with any useful meaning” . . . A fleeting thought, and he’s off again, verifying his foregone conclusions. Fortunately, the possibilities are finite.
Women as vampires, women as zombies, women as piranhas, women as torturers, women as cannibals . . . but most of all, women as sexually insatiable death-dealing castraters . . . “You’re surrounded by the living dead . . . They’re swimming toward you . . . They’re half-rotten jaws hem you in . . . Throwing their grappling hooks . . . Clambering up toward the light they dimly discern in their musty, dark-encumbered minds . . . you are Moby Dick . . . The White Whale . . . They’ll hunt you through the whole world . . . To harpoon you . . . Cut you up . . . Eat you in slices . . .” And so on and on; women as “givers of death, not life,” women united in a terrorist organization called the World Organization for Male Annihilation and a New Natality (WOMANN), dedicated to the overthrow of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the reduction of men to mere sperm factories . . . And that’s just for openers.
Heavily larded with literary allusions and showy demonstrations of the author’s familiarity with the works of Picasso, de Kooning, the Bible, Barthes, Foucault, Mao, Flaubert, Melville, Freud, Tolstoy, Mozart, Bach, the Marquis de Sade, as well as a gaggle of contemporary European intellectuals and Eastern gurus, “Women” stridently demands to be taken seriously as a nihilistic satire on philosophy, religion, the arts, social science, America, France, and whatever else swims into view. While some of these riffs are wildly inventive, most are mere invocations of magic names, summoned to gild the eroticism and supply the requisite redeeming social value. Think of Sollers as a latter-day Glendower, loudly calling spirits from the vasty deep, lacking only Hotspur to remind him: “Why so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?” In Europe, they came running. Let’s see what happens here.
Next: Carolyn See reviews “A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Bronte” by Katherine Frank (Houghton Mifflin).