The first excerpt I heard from this addictive bisexual narrative was from the reserved and perfect mouth of Staci in writing class. She was porcelain, demure, had one glass eye and, I just knew, was hiding the most fruitful world inside the languid body she held so rigid. Her prose, she explained, was trying to channel Carole Maso’s ill-fated protagonist in The American Woman in the Chinese Hat. I’d never seen Staci’s real eye look so wild before, so desirous of something, while her mouth and her posture and her breathy laughter tried to contain it in self-conscious guilt or embarrassment. I knew this book had to be mine.
After class, I asked Staci if I could borrow her copy of The American Woman in the Chinese Hat — and, if she wanted, maybe after I read the book, she could come over to my place and we could talk about it a little. A girl can try.
What I didn’t expect from my introduction to Maso’s rich prose was how startlingly familiar the mood and texture would feel. “My god, she’s singing my life with her words!” I thought. Put simply, this book is the bisexual young woman’s pocket companion. It is more than a journal of mental illness and sexual escapades and American expat travel; it stands out as a mesmerizing liturgy of human experience from the perspective of a strong — even when she is weak — bisexual woman who lets muses distract her from and aid her in dissecting her own dark psyche. Maso casts a net into the inky ocean of a woman come undone and pulls up a dazzling array of images that have the potential to make particularly sensitive readers feel a little woozy. But like any enticing diary, just when your belly gets uneasy and you’re sure you should put it down, something mind-blowingly sexy happens.
From the very first page, repetition of hyper-sensual imagery preps the palette for the carnality to come. Maso’s specialty is evoking memories of the exquisite but simple pleasures with as few heavy and dripping phrases as possible. Images are used in a sort of musical incantation. Fruit split in two, lavender rubbed between the fingers, sea salt on skin — a carousel of gentle stimulation. At Maso’s behest, the reader takes in the aromatic anise from a swirling glass of digestif and squints into the light dancing off a fountain in the afternoon square, all so that, when the time comes, she can just as expertly dip you into other experiences as well, like Catherine with the young Arlesienne:
She touches my neck again. She applies just the slightest pressure. Her touch tells me she wants more. She wants my mouth on her breasts. … She wants my mouth to descend to that triangle, its luxurious dark. And she too needs a small taste. She grows. She grows wild. She turns from a brown horse into a white one. I pull her magnificent mane, press open her thighs. Ride into light. I savor the brilliant, the blinding, the gleaming — Every tree bears fruit here. All afternoon we eat plums, figs.
Or Catherine with her angst-ridden muse, Lucien:
He folds over the pillow and puts it under my back. I am raised toward him and he lowers his magnificent head to me and we meet each other halfway. His long hair is draped over my swollen belly. “Sal de mer,” he says. Oui, I am salty. Soon there will be blood. This excites him. We imagine together the blood that will come. I tell him a story about the ruby jewels hidden deep within the kingdom.
Sex scenes in the novel, those playful or heartbreaking, fall somewhere in between soft and hardcore. A gravitational pull begins when the narrator speaks of bodies together. Being prepared so subtly, one can’t help but walk unblinkingly into her desires knowing that the next page may be subterranean with despair. And there is a lot of despair.
One of the most intriguing and satisfying literary “toys” used in the novel is Maso’s weaving her own perspective in and out of Catherine’s. We sense the classic postmodern unreliable narration early on, but a more intriguing meta-perspective starts to make the reader unsure who is really telling the story. Is it Catherine the writer or Maso the writer of Catherine? Maso offers apologies for how ominous her characters’ futures looks — “I wish I could help them but I cannot” — yet acknowledges her hand in their fate:
“I am the fountain you drink from,” I whisper to them. “I am the water you cannot live without. Remember how hot it gets.” They shudder with recognition and desire. “Help us,” they beg. He closes his eyes. He tries to remember a time before her, but he can’t. “J’ai soif,” he says, moving his tongue deep inside her. For hours he stays there with her. Incapable of moving. Of going anywhere. … It’s hopeless. He kisses her feet and weeps.
It’s this kind of beautiful mind-fuckery that makes The American Woman in the Chinese Hat number one on my erotica bookshelf. And in the spirit of confessionals, I’ll tell you a secret:
One wine-drunk night, I wrote Maso an ardent e-mail claiming she knew my soul, to which she never responded. And just now, a decade after I first stared hungrily at the book in Staci’s lap during one particularly memorable writing class, I considered looking up Maso’s e-mail address again. A girl can try.
Shannon Moore Shepherd is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She also contributes to Atlas Obscura. She received a BA in English Literature with a Creative Writing Focus from Bradley University in her hometown of Peoria, Illinois.
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