Sex and Death
In a literary world already graced by the likes of D. H. Lawrence, one might wonder if we really need another book about the passions and anxieties surrounding Sex and Death's titular themes. The answer may well be yes, if that book is written by Ben Tanzer. With prose free of poetic frill and all the more dense in meaning for its formal compactness, Sex and Death is proof that Tanzer has his finger on the pulse of the still-vibrant humanity underscoring the impacts of modern gender roles, familial relations, and technology on our experiences of intimacy.
One of the book's most obvious successes is its formal treatment of nearly tired subjects. Tanzer spares us a long-winded attempt at reinventing a wheel he knows we've read about countless times, in favor of a brief hybrid between novella and story collection, divided into Tumblr post-length sections which, together, can be consumed within the span of an hour or two. The brevity and blog-like delivery have two effects: to reflect the banality of so much of today's “intimate” connections—for instance, a married woman digging up old pains and traumas with a former lover through the conveniently ephemeral (and easily delete-able) medium of Facebook—as well as to cast a fresh and time-specific light on heavily explored themes.
The latter effect pulls the curtain on one of the book's deeper arguments about the constancy of sexual and mortal anxieties across time and individual life stage. It is no irony that the most impactful parts of the book seem the furthest in theme from such traditionally mature subjects as sex and death: that is, the stories' reflections on youth and childhood. Indeed, this tainted marriage between the end of innocence and the budding of adult awareness serves as the crux of the stories' significance. In one particularly moving chapter, a young character cycles through a handful of recurring thoughts and perceptions as he drifts to sleep at night. “I am not sleeping and I am never going to be sleeping. I am thinking about the endless things that keep me up at night: school, war, my looks, sex, being cool and my parents' voices . . .” he narrates from bed over and over again. The dizzying effect of Tanzer's circular prose here brings us endlessly and ever more emphatically back to his insistence that the fears, desires, challenges ,and preoccupations of childhood and adulthood spring from the same fundamental well of human rawness. In episodes like this one, the sensory intensity of childhood lends itself to a unique exploration of the humility and disorientation which define our youth, yet cannot be separated from the vulnerabilities surrounding our adult experiences of the stories' titular themes.
Tanzer shows us that our preoccupations about sex and death are not just the stuff of grown-up talk, but, rather, they are both the products of our earliest experiences as well as the fate toward which we, from youth, constantly move with simultaneous excitement and dread. Thus, through the ever-eroding innocence of his child and adolescent characters, Tanzer draws a map of our most formative experiences from youth onto the confounding effects of adult love, loss, infidelity, and self-deceit. The stories become an echo chamber masterfully reflected in the way our most unconscious thoughts loop and recur as our brains whirl into sleep, whether for the millionth or final (fatal) time.
Not surprisingly, coming from a writer who has contributed to such publications as Men's Health, it is in the voices of the stories' male characters that readers will find the most honesty. Through episodes as often infuriating as they are true, the author achieves a rare and refreshing vulnerability in reflecting on the more harmful, and morally troubling, aspects of our culture of masculinity. It is not, however, a moral book—there is no pretension of prescriptive theory. On the contrary, Tanzer succeeds in both exposing and challenging the grayest areas of our ideas about sex and gender not by assigning culpability, but instead by exploring complexities from the inside, from within the very psyches of those by whom such ideas are so often perpetuated: fathers and sons.
Precisely in these latter themes, Tanzer has proven himself as an effective craftsman in the art of fiction, a medium best used to explore those very ambiguities so difficult to pin down with theory. He has found a way to exploit fiction's unique ability to navigate moral contradiction through empathy, and should be looked to as a model for the application of this art form as an attempt not only at creative exploration, but also at healing.
Muller is an educator and reader who can't stand to live just one life—so she also writes. She has contributed to Oatmeal Magazine and The SF Bay Reader, and lives in her head/Oakland.