Devils in the Sugar Shop by Timothy Schaffert

Timothy Schaffert’s third novel, Devils in the Sugar Shop, is set in the Old Market district of Omaha, Nebraska — that is, in the artsy, more bohemian section. A surprising amount of the novel’s comedy arises from the fact that such a place could exist in Nebraska, populated by failed erotic novelists; swingers; mischievous twins; insane 60-something women who proclaim that America has “finger-banged” women out of their sexuality; pornographic stalkers; proudly euphemistic sex-toy saleswomen; adulterous fathers who inadvertently send their daughters sexual fantasies, thanks to the auto-complete feature on their e-mail; avowedly gay teenaged boys who have regular consolation sex with their tragic female best friends; and carloads of angelic drag queens.

As even this brief list of characters will suggest, Devils is a breezy read, perhaps surprisingly so for a novel that’s preoccupied with divorce and other maladies of the middle-aged. Schaffert generally treats these maladies as problems of identification or imitation. This becomes clear in the novel’s most authentic instance of maternal love and anxiety: Ashley Allyson, the failed erotic novelist, watches her gay son, also named Ashley (!) but called Lee, watch another man at a restaurant:

Their waiter had a pretty face, and she kept sneaking glimpses at him. Then she noticed that Lee was staring at the waiter too, and she couldn’t stop watching Lee watch him. Then she noticed a man her own age at a nearby table who seemed unable to take his eyes off Lee. She found herself staring at the man who stared at Lee who stared at the waiter. She tried to determine what exactly had the man so enraptured. Lee’s pout? The curls that fell to the nape of his neck? Or was it simply that look of distraction on Lee’s face as he sat staring openly, unconcerned and unembarrassed, at the handsome waiter?

The mise en abyme of staring in this scene makes clear the force of Jacques Lacan’s famous maxim that desire is always desire of the other — that is, a desire for the other’s desire. This structure repeats itself constantly in Devils: Peach isn’t satisfied with sleeping with Allyson’s husband, but must also enroll in her romantic fiction class and write thinly fictionalized autobiographical accounts of sleeping with her husband. When a limo full of drag queens picks up Ashley, it’s not enough to describe their imitation of femininity, but she must imagine how her son would illustrate it for a comic book, noting that he would “capture all the grad queens’ clever damage, but he’d give it some glamour.” Ashley herself is a kind of Mrs. Dalloway-manqué, or would be if Mrs. Dalloway wore Concrete Blonde t-shirts.

The Sugar Shop of the novel’s title is not really a shop, but is rather the brand of sex toys that Deedee Millwood sells “throughout Omaha and the rural communities of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota.” The key to the Sugar Shop is that “its brochures … spoke of sex in a coy and flowery language that nonetheless could provoke a roomful of respectable ladies — minister’s wives, kindergarten teachers — to raucous states of impoliteness.” Deedee defends the Sugar Shop’s commitment to euphemism because it points to “nothing more complex than old-fashioned romance.” In short, it gives “women in … small Midwestern towns” the opportunity to imagine themselves as desiring and desired — but that imagining is safely bound up by a small-town ideal of courtship and monogamy.

When Deedee convinces Ashley to host a party, this ideal is inoperative. Ashley invites her artist friends, women “too smart to be wooed by product names like Orchid Leaf Enlivener and Geisha Jelly. Their mockery was disapproval, plain and simple … Under a certain kind of scrutiny, her thriving entrepreneurial scheme displayed all the sordid excess and pandering of spam e-mail promoting penis enlargement and erection sustainer, or of porn shops with their wide-mouthed blow-up dolls suspended from the ceiling and dressed in negligees and strap-ons.”

But the problem here really isn’t with Deedee’s business: it’s with the women and with herself. If the women are “too smart” to be taken in by the silly delicacy of the Sugar Shop products, they also tend to suffer from a converse delusion: that sex is wholly functional — these parts, these activities, described as explicitly as possible — with no real regard for fantasy (whether idealized or abject). The difficulty for Deedee isn’t so much that these women are right, but rather that she confuses their scorn, which they are simply copying from attitudes found elsewhere, with truth. (After all, as the rest of the novel makes clear, these women have no especial insight into sexual matters.)

I have stressed Timothy Schaffert’s evident conceptual interest in desire, but I should be clear that the novel wears this interest pretty lightly. Schaffert has a good eye for the myriad ways we allow ourselves not to see our complicity in the difficulties of relationships, whether sexual or parental, and he’s able to mine this with good humor and wit. It’s a kind of comedy of middle-brow self-blindness, which is apparently inexhaustible.

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