Rapture by Susan Minot. Alfred A. Knopf. 116 pages. $18.
"People got very shy doing this thing, and no one seemed to want to face the fact that sex was complex."
So thinks Kay one sunny afternoon while fellating her sometime boyfriend Benjamin, which she does for just about all 116 pages of Susan Minot's new novel. Rapture is scorching, not so much in the erotic sense as the psychological one. Like Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Harold Brodkey's great 1975 short story "Innocence" — a tribute to cunnilingus to which Rapture seems a kind of female answer — Minot's latest work holds an unwavering gaze on the way men and women make love, and the mental baggage couples accumulate. The style is sparing and sharp, and the mind behind it is relentlessly searching. The book has already been badly drubbed by most reviewers, and it isn't hard to see why: it's unnerving, revealing, brilliant — and a little embarrassing. It's just the kind of book people don't want to read.
The immediate sensation, and what brought it about, is the focus of this two-character drama, where the stream of consciousness rises in pitch with a rushing tide of lust. Kay and Benjamin have been seeing each other off and on for three years, ever since meeting on a movie set in Mexico, where Kay served as production designer for Benjamin's debut film. They split up eight months ago over an old, and still unresolved, problem — Benjamin's refusal to make a clean break with Vanessa, a woman he no longer loves. They are here in this bed on this afternoon doing this thing because desire has taken over, and has brought with it a struggle between romantic illusion and harsh reality. Benjamin has broken Kay's heart many times, but maybe he's changed; maybe, Kay thinks, he's her destiny. Or not. He's poison - "boy poison" - and she's addicted. She can't think straight, and that's what sex is all about, losing yourself in sensation. Sex blots out logic, and makes one's own lies seem real.
Indeed, Kay is getting "saturated" with thoughts of submission, dissolving "into a sex personality," and losing herself in the process. She wants "selflessness." Sex narcotizes her thoughts of a lonely future. Kay's Catholic background suggests she's committing an act of joyful martyrdom: "She thought, this is what it must feel like to be a saint. Though no saint she could imagine would have been in precisely the same position she was in at the moment."
The recipient of her lusty attention wants to lose himself, too. While Kay is very much in the moment, Benjamin is stuck in the past. Benjamin isn't the man he was when he first met Kay, and he hates what he has become. He's in love with her but is too much of a coward to leave Vanessa, who supports him financially. Benjamin is as chained to Vanessa as Kay is to him, and both lie to themselves to keep their relationship afloat.