The idea that all of us have a self – essential, irreducible and inherently valuable – is something that’s accepted across social divisions, party-political lines and ideological differences. The mere suggestion that the existence of the self is a belief rather than a natural law can induce the scratchy, uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Yet, Will Storr argues in Selfie, it is only a belief: in reality, human beings are inchoate creatures, acting under influences we barely comprehend and creating post-hoc rationalisations for our behaviour to sustain the fiction of coherent identity. And this is all just in the first chapter.
Being really neither about the future nor consistently about sex, Future Sex is a disappointment. Its pitch is a big idea on an urgent theme – a kind of state of the insemination address, or The Way We Frig Now. But what Emily Witt delivers is an accidental exemplar of another modern malaise: the essay collection ransacked from various outlets and contorted into a fictive autobiographical and intellectual arc.
‘It is sad to be reminded, once again, that all this horse racing business is about the rich, for the rich are hideous. There is nothing they cannot ruin,’ wrote John Jeremiah Sullivan in his social history and memoir Blood Horses. But the hideousness of the horsey rich is Jilly Cooper’s inspiration: for ten novels now, she has extracted frothy, filthy entertainment from the lives of the rich and randy in the fictional (and fittingly named) county of Rutshire.
The last story in Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved has a hint of defensiveness about it. It’s called ‘Write What You Know’ and it begins, ‘I only know about parent death and sluttiness.’ Is that really all she knows? Seventeen of the twenty-three stories are written from the point of view of young, American, middle-class, female writer-types. Two are written third-person, one of which is archly called ‘Third Person’ and concerns a protagonist named Rebecca who has a lot of casual sex. Several have a teenage girl as narrator: one can readily imagine each of them growing up to be a young, American, middle-class, female writer-type. Rangy is not quite the word here.
This all suggests that Schiff is lacking in imagination. She isn’t. The best story here is ‘Rate Me’, a five-page dystopian tale where the narrator’s body parts are sent to a company for ‘rating’ and sent back, improved. ‘My vagina couldn’t break five’, she says balefully. ‘When I got my vagina back from them, rated, irradiated, they’d put it in a satin box with a note telling me that I was now eligible to dine with other top-rated members.’ Like Janet Frame at her bizarre best in ‘Solutions’ or ‘The Mythmaker’s Office’, an everyday truth – here, that women are objectified, alienated from their bodies and then convinced to pay for their own mutilation – is refracted into visible form. It’s disturbing, knife-sharp and, most of all, funny.