Wednesday, September 5, 2007


If I told you the book I'm reading included a scene of attempted self-castration, I suspect you'd conclude that I was reading someone like Chuck Palahniuk, someone who would write about the heat of the blood, the snap of the tendons (are there even tendons in there? I don't know, but it sounds plausible), the sudden excess of liquid, and the undeniable sexuality of the whole experience. It would be the kind of scene that causes girls to faint in the subway.

In this case, though, it's not. It's a quiet scene, as ambiguous as anything of its kind can be. The narrator slips off into the bathtub, razor in hand, and we're told of blood, of pain, and of his eventual faint. Nothing is explicit, and it's not until a few pages later that the reader is entirely, finally convinced that their suspicious were correct, and this confirmation comes only in the form of unscarred wrists. Regardless, this particular moment of mutilation feels entirely necessary, a silent and bloody means of further subsuming the terror of sexuality.

The book? The Seraglio, by James Merrill. Published in 1957, the first of the only two novels he ever published. He's well known as a poet, but wrote the two novels when he was relatively young; neither one is anything like what you'd expect, and both are quite remarkable. Truth be told, I liked the other better, and apparently I'm not the only one. It's still in print.

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