Too Beautiful for You: Tales of Improper Behavior by Rod Liddle

Stephen M. Deusner

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.

Too Beautiful for You

Publisher: Doubleday
Length: 240
Subtitle: Tales of Improper Behavior
Price: $19.95
Author: Rod Liddle
US publication date: 2004-12
Amazon affiliate

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.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.