EMILY PRAGER HAS TAILORED her new collection of short stories to a narrow audience. Thirty-one-year-old graduates of elite private high schools and the Ivy League, urban exiles from the liberated upper-middle single females living in Manhattan and afraid of sex will understand it perfectly. Anyone older or younger, male, married or from the suburbs will spend at least some of their reading time hoping to be let in on the joke.
For we can't all be expected to pick up on the plethora of New York catch phrases with which Prager litters her stories. Even "The Lincoln-Pruitt Anti-Rape Device," a cynical tale of women fighting in combat-ridden Vietnam, contains a few passing references to "a gay friend of mine who does props for the Met." Bendel's department store, the "Hers" column, Jerzy Kosinski, Brearley and, yes, the Fly Club manage to sneak into the collection's other stories.
Moreover, not everyone will empathize with or even recognize the feelings of vulnerability to and hatred for men which many of the women in the book express. To one not altogether convinced, Prager's bitterness overwhelms her rather thin veneer of satire and wit, leaving a sour and depressing taste in the mouth.
Which doesn't mean that these five stories aren't refreshing, clever, insightful and even hilarious at times. One of Prager's most appealing talents is her ability to write in any century or country, no matter how exotic or removed, as long as there are women around she feels at home.
In her perusal on the complete catalogue of feminine insecurities Prager first takes the reader to 13th-century China, to the palace of the prefect Lord Guo Guo whose daughter Pleasure Mouse is about to have her feet bound. Pleasure Mouse is a lively six-year-old who, while romping through places like the Stream of No Regrets and the Bridge of Piquapi Memory, discovers the terrible truth about her impending rite of passage. Of course familiar pressures override her objections to a life of crippled submission: in the end she must choose between such a life and a kind of mystical suicide. That the child's mother has abandoned the custom of performing the binding herself because she lears her daughter's wrath puts the ironic icing on an already irony-laden cake. The story is funny, though sad, and its off-beat combination of ancient tradition and '80s morality sets the trendy tone that dominates the rest of the book.
Prager abandons herself wholeheartedly to this tone in the book's second story. "The Alumnae Bulletin." If "A Visit From the Footbinder" depicts a woman on the verge of accepting sex roles, this story shows women rejecting them. Here, in the living room of Edda Millicent Mallory (Brearley, class of '65), we meet Bunny Warburton and Faye O'Jones as the three come together to celebrate their 10th high school reunion. In what has to be one of the most bizarre and yet completely believable rituals ever described in women's literature, the three chums ingest large quantities of marijuana, cocaine, acid and opium (Faye also spends a good deal of time sprinkling nutmeg into glasses of straight scotch because it's chic), dress in Brearley uniforms (short pleated tunic over granny collar shirt, gold studs optional) and present each other with detailed reports of their sexual activities since the last meeting.
Although it's a well-known fact that Brearley girls do meet regularly for this purpose, they usually dispense with the tie-on wooden penises which form an integral part of this particular ceremony. Infused with the sense of masculine calm which these phalluses carry, each woman tells her own horror story of chauvinistic domination. Promisculey is a big as opium with this crowd, so they have plenty to talk about.
PRAGER IS BY NO MEANS a stylist, but she knows how to tell a story. Her characters are so outrageous, their experiences so reminiscent all has something to do with the value of female consciousness raising, or the feminine tendency towards self-destruction. It also might have a lot to do with having fun at the expense of the Brearley School, an ancient and awesome institution on the upper East Side dedicated to the intellectualization of genteel but swinging young ladies. And somewhere in there Prager takes a lot of free-falling pot shots at novelist Jerzy Kosinski, possibly because of the jet-set crowd with which he has lately associated himself.
Unfortunately, the author has difficulty balancing her point with her pyrotechnics. Slickness can only appeal for so long; after a while it begins to wear on the nerves. Thus, some parts of these stories are so funny that one forgets to feel irritated at the elitism of their humor, while others are so irritating that one forgets about the fun. For instance, this passage from "Agoraphobia"
Marian was standing with her back to the front door, stating at her television. For a long time now, Marian had felt as if she were connected to the apartment by a circular ton beam that ran through all the electrical machines she owned. She saw it as tunneling from the television through her midsection to the stereo and then around through all the electrical appliances in the room. When she went through the front door, she felt she had to pull out of the connection. She visualized the beam tearing, ripping out of the TV and stereo and dangling from her ribcage. When the door closed behind her, she felt shorted, juiceless, inert.
Or this one:
Ever since puberty, you have been a dud, Marian. Where is the childn I befriended? Where is that child? You know what your Mo is? You get a boyfriend and you come alive. For the six months it lasts, you're like Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman, there's nothing you can't do. And when it ends, which it always does, you got nothing left. Suddenly, you're Werner Erhard's wet dream, you know?
She is? We do?
But it is in the collection's longest story--"The Lincoln-Pruitt Anti-Rape Device"--that Prager really lets all, her fantasles hang out. Here she details the adventures of operation. Foxy Fire, a special female detachment stationed in Vietnam. Under the direction of a frigid Radcliffe grad (Major Victoria Lincoln-Pruitt), a strange conglomeration of prostitutes and army career women prepares to implement the war's newest and most terrifying weapon, the L.P.A.R.D. This nasty device, used either offensively or defensively, makes casual sex an extremely dangerous enterprise--at least for the man.
Finally, in this, the book's second-to-last story, Prager has figured out an answer to her penis envy. "The L.P.A.R.D is not an evil device designed to castrate men," asserts the major while trying to explain the beauty of the weapon to one of her women. "It is simply an intelligent and long over-due reaction to centuries of Harvarding."