Sex Was Yawn
A man, a master bed, a penis: These are the first three images the reader confronts in Small Acts of Sex and Electricity, Harvard lecturer Lise Haines’ (In My Sister’s Country) second novel. Indeed, Small Acts tries—a little too hard—to earn its title. By page two, Haines’ heroine Mattie has pondered cables and contemplated giving a sleeping man a handjob. But try as she might, Haines can’t write about sex—or any of the book’s other themes—in either an arousing or thought-provoking way, and the novel feels stagnant, rather than electric.
The novel takes the popular trading-places plot device, usually brought to illuminate class and sociological issues, such as in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper or the TV show Wife Swap, but strips it of its socialist implications. This time, the swappers are both bourgeois 30-somethings with nice jobs, only one is married with kids and lives in California (Jane), and the other is single and in Chicago (Mattie).
Mattie and Jane have been best friends since childhood. Mattie, the plain one; Jane, the gorgeous one. Like most beautiful creatures, Jane has the ability to make nice people do questionable things: dragging Mattie to dates with strange boys in high school, indirectly influencing the loss of Mattie’s virginity. She is even blamed for her husband’s transgressions.
So when Jane decides to skip town in her recently deceased grandmother’s Jaguar, Mattie finds herself taking care of Jane’s two girls and sleeping with her husband, Mike, while Jane is out living a more swinging version of Mattie’s single life. This leads to the regular amount of soul searching and self-discovery built in to a plot like this, as Mattie reconciles her feelings for Mike, assumes a role-model position for Jane’s teenaged daughter Livvy, and wonders if she really wants the job and boyfriend waiting for her in Chicago after all.
But despite all the “growing” and “healing” and “confrontation” that purportedly goes on here, there’s very little forward motion in Small Acts. Mattie and Mike have sex in motel rooms. The family lives off of take-out Chinese and Oreos. Jane calls and leaves cryptic messages. People talk in metaphors. And that’s really all that happens. But instead of a realistic tableau of over-privileged-class ennui, Small Acts is as improbable as its fairy-tale construct of a plot, thanks to underdeveloped characters, ridiculous dialogue, and self-consciously thrown-in sex scenes.
Jane’s family reacts to her absence with baffling nonchalance. Mike shrugs and begins shagging her best friend. Livvy doesn’t resent the woman sleeping with her father in the slightest and even smokes pot with her and asks her for advice regarding the boy-next-door. Mona, the youngest daughter, asks about her mother frequently, but just resumes swimming or eating sugared cereal when given vague, noncommittal responses.
Mattie is also an enigma. While Haines demonstrates through numerous flashbacks that Mattie is powerless to say no to Jane, it’s hard to understand why she concedes to her best friend’s selfish whims. Mattie’s attraction to Mike, whom she has been “in love” with since college, serves as an excuse, but it is a feeble one, as Haines fails to ignite any sparks between the two. She equates love with awkwardness, and so makes Mattie and Mike’s conversations frustratingly wooden and vapid.
An example: When Mike wakes up that first morning to find Mattie in his bed conversation turns from Jane’s leaving to Mattie’s wealth of useless trivia. “I have stats on gun-related deaths,” she says. “Skee-ball accidents. Nothing on car flights. Less on why we drive toward collision.” She then responds to Mike’s sexual come-ons with “We’re both a little bereft right now.”
The passage of time doesn’t remedy the artificiality of the dialogue. Late in the book, Mike confesses to her, “I came unglued in Nordstrom’s. A clerk had to guide me to a chair outside the dressing room. She pulled the strings of the shopping bags from my fingers, someone brought me a cup of water ...” Who talks like this?
Since Mattie and Mike have no conversation skills, we’re left with sex as the dominant force in their relationship.
Except the sex is really, really boring.
The scenes aren’t particularly descriptive—Haines cuts away before anything too exciting happens, much like a PG-13 movie. They don’t advance the narrative, and they don’t reveal character. They don’t comment on the characters’ static state, like they do in a Bret Easton Ellis book. They aren’t passages to self-discovery, as they are in a Mary Gaitskill story. These scenes are meant to entice (“I closed my eyes and began to float,” Mattie narrates as Mike pulls down her undies), but much like the post-coital drivel, the sex fails to communicate real passion.
Small Acts of Sex and Electricity tries to fuse chick lit with family-dysfunctional realism and literary writing. But instead of working together, or even creating some wonderful juxtapositions, these elements are just haphazardly thrown about with little commitment or cohesion. Instead of embodying all these things, Small Acts ends up as empty as that half-hearted handjob on its second page.