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Losing It

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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.

As Minot sees it, this kind of self-deceit is something lovers do automatically. Kay, like Ben, fears loneliness, and will tell herself whatever she wants to hear to avoid facing it. She sticks with the wrong person because she’s tired of reminding herself of the reasons not to. She forgives everything in the name of love; forgiveness is part of letting herself go. Kay has left Benjamin before because he’s weak and cowardly. Now, at 34, she starts seeing him as attractively ambivalent; his indecision is downright sexy. Benjamin knows life with Vanessa will be worthless, but he feels he owes her his love. And maybe, if he loses Vanessa, he’ll never have a permanent relationship with anyone, not even Kay. Vanessa knows Benjamin and has no illusions about him, whereas Kay — well, Kay’s wrapped up in love or in sex; she’s not entirely sure at this stage which is which.

The relationship is a mess, which also makes it a real love affair. Minot juts between the two characters with rising intensity, in concert with the action at hand. Kay, with her mixed and mangled feelings of wanting and hoping and wishing and risking; and Benjamin, whose life is an escalating series of disasters, lies and waste — both yearn toward the orgasm that will give her a sense of completion and him a sense of loss. Desire, not to put too crude a point on it, sucks everything out of you: it brings out one’s essential character – her heedless love, his greed.

No, Minot is not the most even-handed writer: She turns a far more understanding eye toward Kay and her suffering masochism than Benjamin, who never quite escapes Minot’s fucked-up-male harness. The book also ends on a sour note, which is to say it doesn’t go quite as far as it should. It’s missing something at the end, although that didn’t keep me from rereading it. Minot is a meticulous writer of enormous sensitivity and persuasion and guts. She writes a perfectly rapturous prose, and Rapture is a merciful and merciless novel.

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  • I keep wondering whether Rapture is an answer of some sort to Nicholson Baker, who writes painfully detailed stream-of-consciousness novels set in “embarassing” situations like a couple having phone sex (Vox) or time-stopping bouts of voyeurism (The Fermata). I guess I’ll have to read it to find out.