Some people think of the entire enterprise of fiction as a sort of confidence trick. And, to a certain way of thinking, it does seem that way: people who don’t exist, in places that never were, doing things that never happened, eliciting feelings in the reader which seem pretty like to those you might have for real people, in real places, doing real things. Some of the most giddily thrilling moments in my lifetime of fiction reading come from writers who openly play the hustler. The agonising death of George and the heartbreaking grief of Amelia in Vanity Fair gain from Thackeray’s insistence that his characters are mere puppets – the reader, sharing in the characters’ submission to the author, shares more heavily in their loss and pain. One of the pleasures of fiction is in observing the author conjure up those real responses to the made-up world, with you the reader as the willing assistant.
But you can only enjoy the trick if you don’t feel insulted by it. And this is where Neil LaBute’s collection of short stories, Seconds of Pleasure, falls down screaming like a penalty-hungry footballer. In short, it cheats. For a book whose major revelation is that men like sex (no really) and will go to tortuous lengths of unpleasantness to get it (I’m amazed), perhaps the cheating has its thematic purpose. Likewise, perhaps the preponderance of narrators linked to the movie business or preoccupied with movies has its thematic purpose too – or perhaps (screenwriter, director) LaBute is unable to divorce his own imagination from the world he works in long enough to make a character from outside it, and needs to accommodate his cinephile sensibilities in the fiction.
In “Ravishing”, the Peeping Tom storyline just about holds its nasty self together, but when the narrator of “Perfect” refers to “Cary Grant in that movie at Mount Rushmore”, it seems crashingly unlikely that even the most self-involved monologuer could forget that he’s thinking of North by Northwest. LaBute reaches for the reference but blots out the detail in an effort to pretend that it’s the native thought of his narrator, rather than an outcrop of the film-maker author. Actually, it’s more distracting to be forced to grope for the title than it would be to have the title on the page, and the stories are frequently stalled by such abortive allusions.
LaBute’s other big weakness, besides thinking in films, is for twists. About half the stories hang on a final, revelatory moment which aims to transform our interpretation of what’s gone before. Turning an audience’s assumptions against them is the basic workaday model of a joke; LaBute’s fail because too often, the stories are tooled to direct us rather than let us assume. The worst offense comes in “Time-Share”. Here, a wife has caught her husband receiving a blow job from a neighbour in the summerhouse. Defensively, he claims a prior relationship as a mitigating factor: he knew his fellator in Manhattan, they played together in a girls-vs-boys softball game. The twist is that the neighbour involved is a man, but the big question for the reader is not, “why would two married men engage in oral sex?” (I read Savage Love, so I’m pretty much clear on that one), but, “why would a man in the depths of humiliation and facing down a divorce keep banging on about meeting his fellow adulterer at a co-ed softball game?” He can’t deceive his wife – she’s seen them, man on man – so the intention must be purely to mislead the reader. LaBute cheats, and in doing so, he takes away the element of complicity.
It’s not all bad. The minute depictions of sexual calculations are neatly done, and if you have a tireless appetite for solipsistic media types, LaBute offers a great many of them with all the realism you could want. For the exceptionally naive, or the unusually bitter, there will be a few shocks or some comfort to be derived here. But, like his characters, LaBute is not quite the urbane seducer he sets out to be.