Sunday, February 24, 2008

Book Review: Gwen Masters’ AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

Gwen Masters is one of erotica’s star writers—and deservedly so. My pulse always quickens when I see her name in a table of contents of a new Cleis book or in the latest weekly issue of Clean Sheets, because I know her story is going to be smart, well-written, and sizzling hot. Of her many stories I love, a sentimental favorite is “Fifteen Minutes” from Best American Erotica 2006. The “sentiment” comes from the fact my own story was also selected for the anthology, because there’s little sentimentality in Gwen’s story. In fact, it’s a clear-eyed look at groupies and musicians on the road, which provides more than just fodder for some edgy sexual fantasy. It also gets your mind racing with questions about the nature of power and sex and self-destructiveness and callousness and how we armor ourselves against pain.

In pondering the effect of Gwen Masters’ work, I realized that her pieces are so powerful because the sex always occurs in an intriguing, and often tragic, context. Perhaps this is an obvious point but most sex scenes in what I’d define as porn or sloppy mainstream popular literature seems to occur in a vacuum. The sex scene is set apart from the story—generic bodies indulge in a formulaic coupling and then we get back to the story, as if sex were the same insertion of Tab A into Slot B for everyone. With Masters, the dynamics of a sexual encounter are shaped and fueled by the characters’ specific desires and demons. A brilliant example of this is her story “Indiana Jones, with Camera” published in The Erotic Woman. The story is about a very erotic woman who gives herself body and soul to a photojournalist lover whose past is as complex as his tastes in lovemaking. Wounded by his work in Baghdad and Afghanistan and other grim places both literally and figuratively, the photographer transforms pain into beauty and pleasure through his muse—I recommend the story highly.

But on to the review at hand. Thanks to a MySpace bulletin, I learned about Masters’ recently published novella After All These Years. She mentioned it was a story she was especially proud of and I knew I’d have to read it. And as I started to read, I immediately sensed I was in the hands of a master storyteller.

“You are a gift,” the stranger murmured.

I didn’t feel like a gift. I was a forty-something mother of three children who hadn’t flown the nest so much as they had fallen from it. I had too much gray in my hair, an aching back and a minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant that always left me with a rabid distaste of anything fried. It was the dead of winter in Chicago, the snow was piled up in high drifts everywhere, and my train was more than fashionably late.

The novella starts in just the right place with just the right line because those words mark a radical change in the narrator’s life past, present and future. The mysterious stranger will give the narrator a precious gift as well: a new sense of connection to her husband who was one of the victims of a suicide bomber’s attack on a US Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983.

Now I face a challenge in talking more about After All These Years. Masters takes the reader on a carefully orchestrated emotional journey and I don’t want to give too much away. I can say that she offers a rare glimpse at the human story behind the TV reports and the politicians’ rhetoric. She shows us the true cost to a family who has lost a husband and father. It’s a serious and moving piece of fiction—and it’s incredibly sexy, too. That’s because Masters gives us a sexual encounter that is so rich with context and history, it takes your breath away.

When Marilyn makes love to the mysterious stranger, she must confront the history of the war in his body. It’s sex as healing on a level that puts Marvin Gaye’s famous song to shame.

In the light of day, the scars weren’t nearly as bad as they had seemed in last night’s shadows. But they were everywhere, evidence of the hellish time he had gone through on the other side of the world. I reached up to touch his chest and he sucked in a breath as my hand started to explore. Once I started touching him, all my fear disappeared. I was more curious than anything else.

“Can you feel that?” I asked.

William let out a shaky breath. “Yes, but not like you would. It’s more like pressure. Almost a tickle in some places.

“What about here?” I asked and pressed my hand flat against his throat. The pulse there raced under my palm.

“That feels the same,” he whispered.

“What about here?” My hand slipped down and pressed against the tattoo on his arm.

William’s eyes closed. “Yes.”

I trailed my fingertips down his arm and touched each finger. He didn’t move as my fingers explored their way back up, followed the line of his shoulder, then ran both hands down his chest. He sucked in his stomach as I touched it. He lay back on the bed as my hands went lower. I stopped at the buttons of his jeans. He was hard behind them. The pulse in his throat jumped with his heartbeat.

“Does this feel the same?” I asked as I ran my fingertips along the waistline of his jeans. The denim was hot, warmed by his skin.

Beyond words, William nodded.

There’s more…and it’s hot, but again I don’t want to give too much away, except to say much more than body parts are involved here. Profound questions about the betrayal of a memory, forgiveness and self-forgiveness will haunt you long after you finish the novella.

After All These Years is the perfect illustration of my contention that the most powerful literary erotica involves sex that matters. Gwen Masters is not afraid to explore intense and often troubling situations but, like her Indiana Jones photographer, she has the artist’s knack of transforming the darker side of human nature into erotic and aesthetic pleasure. I was sorry when the novella ended, but it certainly lingered in my thoughts for a long time afterwards. Fortunately, I know Gwen has a story in the forthcoming anthology Dirty Girls, so I’m looking forward to enjoying some Masterful magic again very soon!


Maryanne Stahl said...

you are really making me want to not only read more erotica but write it (again; I've written a tiny bit). But I teach high school...

SusanD said...

thanks for this, Donna. Another excellent review, and I love Gwen's work, so I'll be checking this out!