Where the God of Love Hangs Out, By Amy Bloom
Cupid has to be patient in this understated collection
Sunday 21 March 2010
Explorations of love in unusual circumstances have become American psychotherapist Amy Bloom's literary trademark over the past two decades. In 2003, Bloom published a book called Normal, an anecdotal and observational study of transsexuals and transvestites, following up on an essay she had written for The New Yorker some years earlier.
Where the God of Love Hangs Out is her third collection of short stories. (She also has two novels to her name, including, most recently, the acclaimed Away.) For a collection that promises such a grand revelation in its title, it is beautifully understated. Love is not a victory march, as Leonard Cohen famously wrote; for Bloom, it is a series of tiny incidents, actions, even silences that crystallise over time into that rare human emotion.
This collection comprises several stand-alone pieces, but the backbone is two quartets of stories. The first is the story of William and Clare, the less-attractive partners in their respective marriages. One evening, while their spouses are sleeping upstairs, William, an overweight and irascible professor, and the prickly Clare move from cosy friendship to sex. Love in Bloom doesn't come quick: it germinates over years of attention and small deeds. Though William and Clare would never make romantic leads in usual circumstances, Bloom lets this odd romance, played out alongside gout, guilt and acid humour, grow so strong that when it is felled at the end of the quartet, it becomes a tragedy.
The second quartet is about Lionel and his stepmother Julia, a continuation of a story first printed in Bloom's 1993 volume Come to Me. Now it has been expanded into a mini-epic, with generations of children, lovers and neighbours all circling around the kitchen table of Julia. The story begins a generation back, when Julia's husband Lionel, a jazz saxophonist whom she has saved from alcoholism, dies. Together they have had a son, Buster, and Lionel also leaves a 19-year-old son, Lionel Jr, from a previous marriage, who has grown up with Julia as his mother.
A couple of nights after the funeral, Lionel Jr, like a sleepless child, climbs into bed with his stepmother. In the darkness, the acceptable, filial love he has shown her in return for her devotion to him – mending things, doing the washing-up, picking up little Buster from soccer practice – turns in grief to a sexual one. Julia, 20 years his senior, cannot quite turn this beautiful, devoted creature away that night but, come dawn, realises that their relationship will ruin him. To save Lionel Jr, she must hurt him and send him away. Lionel Jr exiles himself in Paris, where he works as a maritime lawyer, for more than a decade.
This could be a story about the illicit drama of incest, but Bloom steers it away from such an easy target. Instead, it is about a woman who puts a mother's love above her own feelings. But how much she has buried is revealed when Lionel Jr, now a grown man, is persuaded back to the family table many years later. Over the washing of the dishes, Lionel tells Julia that he has done what she wished: grown apart from her, and become his own man. "We would never be lovers now," he says, at which Julia suddenly finds herself thinking that "all that French polish is not worth much if he cannot figure out a nicer way to say he no longer desires her".
Bloom's profession is often cited in reviews of her work as the reason why her dissection of character is so keen, but it is hardly an answer to what makes her so extraordinary. After all, Chekhov, the master of psychologically intense short stories, wrote years before Freud had bought his first shrink's couch. This is where Normal comes in. Though her characters in Where the God of Love Hangs Out are notionally straight, Amy Bloom doesn't write about "heteronormative" relationships, where a handsome man and beautiful woman fall into each other's arms and produce children who will replicate this ideal model. Bloom's characters are the ones left on the cutting-room floor. They don't make the grade of a traditional love story, and they know it. How, then, can Julia understand the conflict of maternal and romantic love for her stepson, or Clare understand hers for a man who so let himself go? There is not the heteronormative model for them to steady themselves against, nor a ready romantic language. Bloom slowly builds up these relationships through the tokens of love – the making of lunch, the sending of a letter once a month, persistent and steady.
So where does the God of Love hang out when not on official duties? If Bloom's stories are to be believed, he is often lounging with a glass of bourbon, making chitchat, before gently prodding his targets with his arrow.
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