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Family & Relationship Issues

by Hanne Blank
Seal Press, 2002
Review by April Chase on Apr 21st 2003

Shameless

Shameless is a collection of short stories in the literary erotica genre. Literary erotica involves higher standards of writing than, say, the letters section of your average smut mag, and all the stories here are well crafted and intelligent. What is missing, though, is the sense of fun, adventure, in short - the thrill. Their spelling and grammar are perfect, the political connotations are correct, but I just don't think they're having all that much fun.

Take, for instance, the protagonist of "Cages," a classically trained ballerina who moonlights as a stripper. One day, she allows a wealthy older patron to take her to a hotel room and pay her for sex. Then, the deed done, "I felt that coiling slither in my belly: shame. This was sin. I thought I was ruined, used and defiled by you." Whoa. That's supposed to turn me on? Later in the story, she decides maybe the whole thing was okay, but the sheer emotional baggage of the set-up left me feeling rather guilty and indecisive myself.

And how about this, from "Stone Cold (A Confession)," in which the lesbian protagonist tells her married lover off: "It was the meanest thing I could think of. It crushed her. That was the desired effect. Like I said, I could have been kinder. She loved me, after all – whatever those words might have meant to her. But pride is a funny thing. It was important that I demolish hers in order to save my own." Now, doesn't that just make you wanna hit the sack?

Most of the stories involve sex in committed relationships of one sort or another – very, very little casual sex – which may be somehow revealing of the female psyche. Is it a coincidence, or is it that even in fictional erotica stories, women don't feel quite right about sex just for the heck of it? That old "Madonna/whore" archetype runs deep in our culture. I have to ask myself: What would a collection of "men's intimate erotica" feature?

Now, it's not that I didn't like the book, because I did find haunting, memorable scenes in many of eighteen stories included. "The Book of Zanah" was an amazing read; I was just sure something horrible was going to happen, from the author's gothic build-up – and the ending, although a surprise, was far from disappointing. I also liked "To Remember You By," the collection's only historical piece, set during World War II. And the collection of vignettes, "Seven Women," is close to poetry with its lyrical, sublime images.

As different as they are, most of the stories have a lot in common. First, as the title implies, they are all written by women. And, of course, there's lots of sex involved; otherwise, they would hardly be erotica. They run the gamut from lesbian to heterosexual, and fairly simple to advanced kinky (group sex, sex during pregnancy, sex during menstruation), but they all share a realistic style (no outer space aliens or ravishing pirates), contemporary settings, and this same rather somber tone.

In the end, this sadness and seriousness overwhelmed the lustfulness, in my mind anyway. I was a tad bit depressed after reading Shameless, wondering if I should go read a romance novel or two, with their non-explicit throbbing manhoods and invariable happy endings, just to cheer myself up.

 

© 2003 April Chase

 April Chase is a freelance journalist and book reviewer who lives in Western Colorado. She is a regular contributor to a number of publications, including The Business Times of Western Colorado and Dream Network Journal.