Love's Labors Lost

BOOKS

Lovers and Tyrants by Francine du Plessix Gray Simon & Schuster, $8.95,316 pages.

THE TRANQUIL SURFACE of early married life for Stephanie, the narrator of Lovers and Tyrants, is disturbed by a recurring dream in which she is a middleaged spinster, alone and unloved. The dream is a result of her disappointment, not only with marriage, but with all her close relationships from childhood on. None of the people she has loved, from her nanny, her father and her high school girlfriends to her adult lovers, has provided her with a real sense of comfort and belonging. Instead, each of the loved ones has stunted her emotional growth in some profound way.

The theme of oppression as an inevitable part of love functions in this novel as a sort of clothesline on which selected vignettes from the heroine's life are hung. The technique of spotlighting only important periods of Stephanie's life results in a rather choppy narrative. Ideally, each chapter would contribute to a deepening understanding of the tyranny-of-love phenomenon. Unfortunately, the author so frequently loses control of her material that references to her putative theme seem to have been tacked on to each episode as afterthoughts. Her conclusions about the crippling side effects of love do not develop organically out of Stephanie's life story; they seem rather to have been squeezed out of it.

Stephanie's progress from an unconventional childhood in France to adolescence in New York to "maturity" and marriage in New England doesn't seem to teach her very much except that she would really have preferred to be a boy all along. She reaches a climax of liberation from the societal constraints imposed on women near the end of the book, in bed with a homosexual with whom she has symbolically switched roles. This is a singularly tasteless scene in a generally tasteless book.

Lovers and Tyrants is a "woman's novel" in the worst sense of the expression. Instead of the Great American Novel Francine du Plessix Gray wanted to write, she has produced a pretentious Fear of Flying, replete with third-hand insights about liberation and the mandatory ain't-it-awful references to the Vietnam War, political assassinations etc. Gray even presents her own version of the quest for the "zipless fuck":

In between confession-going, I think of new ways to fuck, in ways as anonymous as possible, with strangers whom I'll never see again, with whom I'll never have to share what I describe in my journals as "the fetid burden of sentiment."

LIKE FEAR OF FLYING, Gray's novel ends on a rueful but upbeat note that seems unsupported by the bulk of the novel. Perhaps it's time someone wrote a dark feminist novel; if the problems are as agonizing as Gray tells us they are, why do the heroines always manage to breeze through them by the end? There must be a number of women whose lives have been poisoned by the conflicts Stephanie supposedly resolves. All Gray's protagonist has to offer in the way of hard-earned wisdom is a cutesy line about taking the bad with the good: "That's what life is all about...Garlic and sapphires in the mud. There's quite a bit of anguish hidden behind our placid, blissful exteriors."

The fundamental triviality of Gray's feminism is unhappily reflected in her style, which might charitably be called uneven; that is, it goes from bad to worse. Gray is by turns breathy and didactic. The effect of an occasional lovely image is immediately obliterated by platitudes. The light in northern France is like "the gleam on a pear," but Gray can't just leave it at that: "all seems spun in webs of fragile silver," and on and on. Lovers and Tyrants is relentlessly overwritten; Gray leaves no noun unmodified in her search to recapture the past. She never settles for one evocative detail when a page-long list of sensations will do. Her diction is inexact ("voluminous" eyeglasses?) as is the overall effect of her prose.

By portraying the trials of her heroine in this simple-minded, self-indulgent manner, Gray does a disservice to those who must confront them in real life. Stephanie, in her interminable conversations with a hip Jesuit friend, rhapsodizes about her yearning for freedom. Yet every time he suggests that she take a real step towards it, she lapses into a whining refrain about how tough it is for women. By this time, of course, one has completely lost interest in any of the things Stephanie is searching for; it becomes increasingly hard to believe that what she wants can be worth having.

"Art," says Stephanie to her gay gigolo, "creates an alternate reality, maybe my pen can be my penis, my vengeance for not being a man, how do you like that schnookums?" "Not much," seems the only possible response. It's too bad that Gray did not choose another way of creating an alternate reality. Her journalistic work on a variety of subjects is impressively lucid, but none of her admirable talent for making complex things clear has spilled over into her novelistic technique. Lovers and Tyrants is a first novel, a fact that may excuse a great deal, but it is so devoid of promise that better work is not likely to be forthcoming.

ONE OF STEPHANIE'S lovers, a hopeless alcoholic, confides to her that he has a secret desire to write a novel. This revelation prompts a rare moment of humorous insight from Gray's heroine:

Of course he talked about the novel he wanted to write, most men who came to her wanted to eventually write a novel, as she did. God, Americans and their desire to be novelists, the American novel should be listed in medical dictionaries alongside Megalomania and Obsessional Neuroses.

Perhaps Stephanie and her creator think their Franco-Russian parentage excludes them from this category of pathetic dreamers. But Stephanie's remark is more than anything else a joke on the author. It can only inspire the wish that Gray, like so many others, had allowed her dream of writing a novel to remain unrealized.