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Alternatives to SexReview - Alternatives to Sex
A Novel
by Stephen McCauley
Washington Square Press, 2006
Review by Christian Perring
Dec 9th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 50)

I think I'd heard Stephen McCauley interviewed on NPR, or maybe read a positive review, and his novel Alternatives to Sex sounded interesting.  However, sitting down to read it, the description on the jacket was very off-putting -- a "chronicle of in post-traumatic, morally ambiguous America where the desire to do good is constantly being tripped up by the need to feel good."  Still, I thought, I'd try the first few pages and see how it went.  I've been doing that with several novels recently, and with most of them, I never get interested.  The story line wasn't very promising: it is 2002 and a 40-something gay Boston realtor says he is going to abstain from sex, after a year or so of having sex with random strangers he meets online, and he has difficulty in collecting rent from his tenant.  The big event in the plot seems to be that he will try to get a suburban couple to buy a house downtown. 

It turned out that Alternatives to Sex is one of the most engaging and enjoyable novels I've read in the last year.  All the above description is true, but conveys nothing of the smartness of McCauley's writing.  It is a funny novel, but there are not any set scenes or even any comic moments as such; rather, the narrator, William Collins, is just really witty and perceptive despite his own self-destructiveness.  Both his anonymous sexual encounters and his work as a realtor give him a glimpse into people's lives.  He meets men in hotel rooms, in their houses, or in their vehicles, and even though they give fake names and say almost nothing about their families, he still sees a great deal about them.  As a realtor, he meets people at major transitions in their lives when they are anxious about money and their own happiness, and so he finds out a great deal about what their major preoccupations are.  (Here McCauley takes some tips from Richard Ford's wonderful Independence Day, the main character of which is also a realtor, and it leaves me wondering why there are not more novels about realtors, because it is such a wonderful plot device.)  Of course, he is much slower to come to grips with the sources of his own unhappiness, but he is making progress. 

It is an easy novel to read, divided into short titled sections, sometimes just a paragraph long, and never more than a few pages.  Sometimes one scene is divided into several sections.  There are plenty of striking characters -- William's co-workers, his clients, and the men he has sex with.  Few of them are given much psychological depth, and none of the characters is even particularly believable.  Rather, one often gets the feeling that they provide McCauley with the opportunity to give his commentary on modern culture, and he picks up on plenty of rich themes.  Everyone in the novel is unhappy with their lives and is trying to become happier, often fighting themselves in the process.  William is a prime example: not only is he unable to keep to his abstinence resolution, but he keeps on pushing away people who have genuine affection for him.  Other characters are dealing with addictions, taking antidepressants, offering banal advice in books about how to get rich quick, going to self-empowerment seminars, devoting themselves to yoga, or moving to a new house.  McCauley is a keen observer of human self-deception, and his descriptions are fantastic.  I finish with just one fine example of William's reflection:

I was finding my middle years tough.  Optimistic youth is spent talking yourself into believing that at any moment you'll do something bold, brave, and significant, while the calm post-sixty years are spent talking yourself into believing that you might have done something bold, brave, and significant but for bold, brave, significant, and unspecified reasons, you chose not to do.  At my age, I was living in the cold waters of semireality, trying to swim from one set of delusions to the temporary safe harbor of the next.  (73)

Link: Author website

© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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