Too Beautiful for You: Tales of Improper Behavior by Rod Liddle
Liddle freights the sex in these stories with symbolic weight, but that means it can never be merely 'improper behavior' -- sex must be an expression of character, a vehicle for various obsessions and shortcomings, a cause for romantic tumult.
Rod Liddle's debut short-story collection, Too Beautiful for You, has one of the least titillating subtitles imaginable: "Tales of Improper Behavior." That choice of words reads almost like a disclaimer, but is an apt representation of what's between the covers, although not in the way Liddle intended: that word "improper" sounds dull and apologetic, almost puritanical and dreadfully unerotic -- completely proper, in fact. Rarely do these 11 tales transcend that dull, underserving adjective.
Liddle freights the sex in these stories with symbolic weight, but that means it can never be merely "improper behavior" -- sex must be an expression of character, a vehicle for various obsessions and shortcomings, a cause for romantic tumult -- which is commendable. By making these stories explicitly about "improper behavior," however, he tends to write toward a specific purpose, to direct the stories toward sex and debauchery even when the characters and predicaments do no merit such behavior. In "Fucking Radu" the narrator, a young woman named Emily, hooks up with a street bum her friend daringly brings to a party; their dalliance, a decision less Emily's than the writer, sets the story in motion. "What the Thunder Said" begins with an act of outdoor fellatio, the description of which seems to be the sole point of the unbelievable story.
But sex is only half of these stories. A sense of wackiness pervades Too Beautiful for You, as if Liddle has been inspired solely by two sets of writers: Brits like Tibor Fischer and Will Self, whose oddities churn up a trendy nihilism, and Americans like George Saunders and Adam Johnson, who blend the fantastical and the realistic and often arrive at something realer than real. In comparison, Liddle's zaniness feels coerced. The main character of "Headhunter Gothic" is tormented by a sinister talking baby with a foul mouth. A kitchen demon makes an appearance in "Sometimes Eating Marmite," foreboding romantic illdoing. Too often the screwball concepts severely test one's patience: Will anyone finish "St. Mark's Day" after learning that its characters are houseflies?
Occasionally the stories simply run out of steam, their metaphorical potential falling flat long before the last sentence. In "Fucking Radu," Emily begins a relationship the tramp Radu, who claims to be a Romanian refugee pursued by secret police. The story is intermittently affecting, especially when Emily and Radu visit her mother at a hippie commune, but ultimately Liddle lets the story flail until it concludes as nothing more than a callow genocide-as-romance metaphor.
Such profound shortcomings are truly unfortunate, because -- surprise -- Liddle is not without true talent. Despite his tendency toward cutely addressing the reader ("Are you still with me?") and overplaying his satire (ice cream becomes "the thick bright yellow of the frozen chemical custard"), his prose displays an immediacy that elevates these romantic disasters to life-or-death traumas. In "Three Seconds with Sophie," the collection's best story, Paul is Sophie's long-suffering boyfriend whom she professes to love but refuses to fuck. "He admits that if one were to sleep with absolutely everybody, then, perhaps, refusing to sleep with the person you loved really would show a depth of feeling. Maybe."
Over the course of the story, Paul realizes Sophie's chronic unavailability and finally decides to split, but readers may not be so decisive, as she is one of the book's more fascinating characters. Whereas her friends, including Paul, are inescapably poor with very few prospects, Sophie comes from a wealthy family, but slums in a London tenement; it's conceivable she's based on the Pulp song "Common People," and sex with anyone but Paul is "her glorious compulsion." For Paul and for the reader, Sophie "becomes a sort of spectator sport," and while she is mentioned by characters in subsequent stories, she makes no other appearance and no other character embraces impropriety with quite as much lively gusto, much to the collection's detriment.