There’s a sublime little moment in Annie Hall in which Alvy, dazed after a prolonged bout between the sheets with Shelley Duvall, tells his slow-to-climax date that there’s too much emphasis placed on the orgasm to make up for empty areas in life. Duvall asks who said that, and Alvy replies, “Oh, I don’t know, I think it was Leopold and Loeb.” This throwaway one-liner is classic Woody Allen: referential and
breezily absurdist, a meeting of the erotic and the intellectual, all colored by faint strains of anxiety and paranoia.
It’s a tone implicitly promised by a book called Neurotica and by editor Melvin Jules Bukiet’s introduction to this collection of stories by Jewish writers on sex. Bukiet writes, “Neurotica aims to reflect the abundant varieties of one people’s sexual experience in all its glorious and fertile catholicity . . . If the author would really get under the skin of the authorities, then he or she was welcome. Finally, you’ve got a bunch of dirty Jews at play in the swamps of the land.” Bukiet doesn’t specify which “authorities” he and his chosen den of scribes aim to irk be they religious, cultural or aesthetic judges but a blithe vagueness buoys his introduction. His goal is simply to drop a few hedonic Hebrews into the slithy toves, putting, as Alex Portnoy said, the id back in yid. Of course, Philip Roth is here (so is Henry, but not Joseph), with other heavy hitters such as Bellow, Brodkey, Malamud, Ozick and Singer, joining a younger crew of notables. All are gathered together by the simple ties of lineage and lust; Bukiet clarifies, “I wanted to hit 100 on both the Jew-o-meter and the sex-o-meter.”
Alas, Alex Portnoy couldn’t keep it up in the State of Israel, and neither can Neurotica. “Our lovemaking wasn?t that memorable,” admits the narrator in Rebecca Goldstein’s “The Courtship.” She’s speaking of her lover, but she
could be griping about a large number of this thick collection’s characters. For the most part, the book just isn’t sexy, and it’s sometimes downright sexless. Of course, one can’t fairly dismiss it for low turn-on voltage alone its title suggests a concern as much with the cultural codes and unshakable hang-ups that color, warp, delay or barricade sexual expression as with the act itself. Yet a quick look at this motley crew of stories hints that Neurotica is little more than a clever but facile pun: “Elvis, Axl, and Me” by Janice Eidus is a silly, adolescent scrap of fantasy fan-worship; Max Apple’s “The Eighth Day” observes a man pressured by his girlfriend to relive his circumcision as part of primal therapy; in an excerpt from “Three Pigs in Five Days,” Francine Prose follows a woman on a museum tour of Rodin’s nude sculptures. If any of these stories register on the sex-o-meter, it’s only on a technicality.
A few entries seem foolhardy or downright bizarre. The sole depiction of homosexuality in Neurotica comes from Michael Lowenthal, who portrays an abbreviated erotic encounter between a young Jewish man and a self-hating
German who wants his new lover to perform a guilt-purging circumcision upon his Aryan member. This kind of melodrama should play as black absurdist comedy, but Lowenthal plays it straight, so to speak, and the whole affair collapses under its own bathetic weight. Maybe it’s churlish to quibble with Neurotica for its conspicuous absentees (such as Allegra Goodman, Norma Rosen, Michelle Herman and what the hell Amy Sohn). What’s really missing in action is a satisfying representation of the authors who are present. Philip Roth’s contribution is an inconsequential six-page snippet from The Counterlife wherein a dentist and his assistant play Doctor. No shtupping. (Or, as Portnoy might put it, NO SHTUPPING!) One could randomly point to any page of Portnoy’s Complaint and probably land on some clash between sexual identity and Jewish identity, conflicts tailor-made for Bukiet’s project. If Portnoy seems too obvious a choice (though hardly more obvious than Woody Allen’s much anthologized “The Whore of Mensa,” which opens the volume), then why not something from “Goodbye, Columbus” or “My Life As A Man,” or even “The Breast”?
Nor does the childhood experience of sexuality, a treasure trove in Jewish-American literature, receive the treatment that it could in Neurotica. I’m curious to know why Bukiet overlooks all of Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep” or, say, Steve Stern’s cheeky “Aaron Makes a Match” (first line: “‘Aunt Esther, have you ever been penetrated by a man?’ asked her nephew, Aaron Bronsky, who was concerned.”). Bukiet does give us a close Stern second, “The Sin of Elijah,” the remarkable tale of Feyvush and Gitl, a paranormally horny pair who ascend to heaven from their Lower East Side tenement flat on the energy of their lovemaking. They find the hereafter a listless, lustless domain, so the angel spirits them back to earth, with disastrous results. The story is the work of a master; it careens with
riveting, tragic force from its gloriously carnal, guileless beginnings where Stern locates beauty in domestic squalor to its viscerally ugly, abject end.
The strongest bond linking these works together is disgust toward sex, a palpable dread of the erotic self. This tone would seem to have less to do with some implicit thesis Bukiet may be sketching of Jewish sexuality than his own (rather impetuous) proclivities as a reader, which he mentions in his introduction. (N.B. In no fewer than four stories do oppressive agents of assimilation come in the form of tall blonde Stepford goyim, a leitmotif that shook up this shiksa.) Bukiet had no aesthetic or moral obligation to compile a collection that could have been subtitled “Feel Good About Your Body,” but he should have put together a list that did reflect pleasure and joy however fleeting, however fraught as well as claustrophobia and failure in the multiplicities of Jewish sexual life. If Bukiet wanted these assembled scribes to “play in the swamps of the land,” he might at least have let them take their clothes off. Instead he doesn’t even let them get dirty.