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Oral Arguments

Set during a single sex act, Susan Minot's Rapture tries to show us what lovers are actually thinking. But Kelly Link's collection of stories, Stranger Things Happen, really scores.

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How many blow jobs lead to Grandma's driveway? This is the question ultimately raised by Susan Minot's Rapture, a novel that, as everyone now knows, takes place during a single act of oral sex -- one in which the blowee, a sleazeball indie director named Ben, languidly ruminates about the landscaping of the grandparental homestead while his ex-girlfriend Kay bobs and weaves down below for 110 TMJ-inducing pages. But if Ben can't help allowing his mind "sort of to drift and wander" during this epic irrumation, neither will you: Kay's stamina is impressive, but the real achievement of Minot's book is that it manages to make sex so boring.

The fellatio, after all, is just a gimmick. Rapture isn't so much about head as about mind -- specifically, what's inside Ben's and Kay's minds, and by extension just what the difference is between men and women and how they think about sex and love. And indeed, while Kay's going down, all kinds of stuff comes up. Interwoven with descriptions of the act she's performing are flashbacks, alternating the characters' points of view, to the history of their troubled relationship: their meeting on a film, his inability to leave his longtime girlfriend, Vanessa, and commit to Kay, the sex Ben and Kay had, the tiny mean things they said to each other at parties, how they parted, how they came back together.

This might have been an efficient, if none too original, way to explore the questions that Minot seems to be interested in (though Nicholson Baker's phone-sex novel Vox did it much better). But Minot's aperçus about sex and love and men and women rarely rise above the intellectual and stylistic level of the Mars-Venus series. There are glimmers of interesting insights -- about, say, how for men sex is a refreshing "release," while for women it's a "hook" -- but for the most part, this novel owes a lot more to Dr. Ruth than to Dr. Freud ("A kiss had the power to make people believe that not only was love possible, it was really quite likely"). No one doubts that sex is "too mysterious, too powerful, too magic," but a serious novelist's job is to explain what the mystery, power, and magic are, and where in the psyche they lie, not to do what Minot keeps doing here, which is merely to assert that they exist.

Even worse -- and more intellectually dishonest, given the novel's pretensions -- is how the author rigs her case. Let's see: Kay is brisk, thoughtful, attractive without being threateningly model-y, introspective and yet adorably aware of her own very, very few limitations (years ago, she gave up doing volunteer work!), whereas Ben is a total jerk. He womanizes compulsively, he stays with Vanessa because he needs her money and her influential father's connections, and he's repellently self-pitying and shifty ("He had pretty much adopted it as a general policy to . . . never admit anything"). The characters' climactic thoughts leave you in no doubt about what to think of these two and the sexes they represent: Kate, who throughout has been intent on "selflessness," finally achieves a quasi-religious rapture -- she feels "lifted and golden and electric" -- while Ben glumly runs through a mental catalogue of the drugs and booze and hussies he's been doing in the back of cars with a second-rate actor friend. I have no doubt that men can be beasts when it comes to sex, or that we have deep problems with intimacy and commitment and such; it's just that a serious novel about those issues would allow you to draw your own conclusions instead of shoving its own prefab agenda down your throat.

At some really crass level -- the guy level? -- these shortcomings wouldn't matter as much if the sex were better. After all, novella-length fellatio is terrific narrative and commercial bait ("Read the blow-job book!") -- it's what inspired Rapture's publisher to advertise it as a "graphic, erotic, provocative" work. Since you can only assume, however, that such adjectives refer to passages such as the one in which Minot pulls out all the stops to describe the male sex organ -- "It had many aspects to it" -- you have to wonder whether the people in the Knopf publicity department are getting out of the office enough. But then, the promise of hot sex is, like everything else about this book, wholly unrealized: Minot promises to satisfy your drives, only to give you Granny's driveway. Rapture? I know a tease when I see one.

Unlike that of Minot's book, the title of Kelly Link's amazing collection of stories doesn't promise more than it can deliver: It would be hard to find stranger things than those that happen in Stranger Things Happen. In one story, a dead college professor posts letters to his wife, whose name he can't remember, from a vaguely tropical resort where ghosts called loolies watch soap operas in the hotel lobby; in another, a kleptomaniac Scottish hotel maid falls in love with a phobic youth whose mother was killed by peacocks and whose overprotective aunts are the mythical goddesses Minerva, Venus, Persephone, and Diana. In a third, a disarmingly low-key ghost story called "The Specialist's Hat," you realize that the baby-sitter who arrives to guard two children living in a gloomy southern mansion is the house's resident ghost.

What makes these remarkable stories so unnerving is the way in which they replicate so uncannily the feel and logic of dreams: The narratives have vaguely familiar contours -- from Greek myths, half-forgotten fairy tales, stuff you read as a kid (one story's about a Nancy Drew-like girl detective who goes to the underworld to find her mother) -- but the details, however misplaced or irrational, are as concrete and hard as pebbles. I don't know why the Specialist's Hat is sewn with the beaks of birds and some human teeth, but it's an image I haven't been able to stop thinking about since I first read the story; ditto for the exquisitely carved and decorated prosthetic noses that one maimed character wears in "Water Off a Black Dog's Back."

And yet, as in dreams, the bizarre details come together in a way that's coherent: All of these stories return obsessively to love and death and the way that our private narratives, both in dreams and in the way we unconsciously organize our lives, keep oscillating between them, using one as the touchstone for making sense of the other. ("Tell me which you could sooner live without, love or water?" the noseless man's beautiful daughter challenges her boyfriend, who ends up losing a body part, possibly on purpose, in order to fit in to her family.) Desire, fantasy, extremity: Those are what Minot's much-hyped book, which is debuting with 60,000 copies in print, is supposed to be about; if you take the trouble to seek out Link's book in the gloomy netherworld of your local superstore, you'll find that her rare and beautiful strangeness provides the real rapture.

Rapture
By Susan Minot
Alfred A. Knopf; 116 pages; $18.
Stranger Things Happen
By Kelly Link
Small Beer Press; 266 pages; $16.


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