Review Of Seconds Of Pleasure, by Neil Labute
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/31/06
Why did Eugene O’Neill decide to publish a book of his poems? Granted, I could ask the same of, say, Leonard Nimoy, but the famed Star Trek actor never laid claim to caring for the written word the way the great American playwright did. Yet, both published hideous doggerel for the same reason- they could, because of their celebrity. This phenomenon is not limited to writing of course. B actor David Hasselhoff, of Baywatch fame, has released CDs, and many a singer, especially noxious rap stars, has claimed to be an actor. Following in that ignominious tradition, playwright and film director Neil Labute released a collection of ‘short stories’ called Seconds Of Pleasure back in 2004 that, well, as he might say, ‘suck really, really bad, dude.’ This is because they are wholly devoid of insight, of the sort that populate the best Raymond Carver tales- an influence whose touch is all over these pallid echoes which lack any real style. They typically consist of losers who get involved in some absurd or pitiable sexual situation, and then chuckle about their loserhood.
Don’t get me wrong, Labute is a good filmmaker (In The Company Of Men, Your Friends And Neighbors), and I’ve read a couple of his good plays. That is his métier, and he’s good at it- sort of a younger David Mamet. But, playwrights have to write character first, and let the characters define themselves, inside out, while fictionists have other options which with to limn their characters; ones Labute either ignored, or was unaware of. Just as poets almost never make good prose writers, and vice versa, Labute’s stories, really just pallid posturings- not even full blown ‘scenes’, go dramatically nowhere, and are highly repetitive. Were it not for each succeeding stories’ title pages one could hardly know the scene and characters have changed. The actual book, itself, is digest sized, in a pallid attempt to puff the large type on the small pages to 221 pages. In reality, each story is perhaps 2½ normal sized book pages in length; just slightly longer than micro-fiction, or short shorts.
That all said, Labute’s familiar world of modern day losers is more well realized than the similar fictive universes of a David Foster Wallace, Rick moody, or Dave Eggers, simply because he can write. Yes, as a whole, these tales, and the book, fail, but there are some moments, now and again, that show a writer of skill, and not one addicted to mere ‘coolio posturing’. Yet, these are rare, as most of the tales in Seconds Of Pleasure are mere first person confessions of some sexual misdeed, usually by a philandering husband, whose female ‘victim’ somehow deserves what she gets, which even include incest and murder, but Labute loses sight that in order for a reader to be drawn into a tale they need to be able to relate to a character. Too often, Labute is content to be a voyeur, or worse, a zoo watcher. His condescension toward the human element could work in a few selected tales, but in story after story it drones and becomes stale, as well as trite.
In Boo-Boo a middle aged pervert lusts for a young girl with a scab on her calf. In Full Service, a neurotic man becomes fixated on a sexy female motor mechanic. In Perfect, which echoes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Birthmark, an emotionally warped man is disgusted by a small mole, and other defects, on his wife’s shoulder, and dreams of removing them. In A Second Of Pleasure, the memory of an unexpected moment of affection makes a woman end an affair, yet bogs down in poor and undifferentiated dialogue. In Ravishing, a couple of racists perverts pick up a drugged up black hooker, film her performing sex acts on them, then kill her on tape. I mean, the tale is dull, but if Labute wanted to make it ‘real’ he should have tried to probe the mind of a serial killer who taped his crimes, not indulged in the puerile 1980s fantasy of real ‘snuff films’. Maraschino finds a deranged young woman who secretly stalks the father who abandoned her and her mother years earlier, and seduces him in a Holiday Inn.
If you are thinking to yourself that Labute’s tales seem to be rather limited in range, well- BINGO! Yet, they just kept coming. In reading the book, which took less than forty-five minutes, I got the distinct feeling that I was in some sort of odd race with Labute; that perhaps I was reading the tales as quickly as he had cranked them out, like those people who write for perverted online incest or coprophilia sites do.
In Opportunity, a woman recalls a lie she told to protect her father from discovery of a crime he committed, as she drives in and out of fog, only being overheard by the reader while in view. The ending is singularly atrocious:
The taillights, like the flaming eyes of a storybook monster, become smaller and smaller still. And then they are gone, swallowed up by the endless dark of an infinite night.
In Open All Night, a married man is stuck at a strip club when his car battery conks out. Of course, a stripper with a heart of gold rescues him. In Some Do It Naturally an old pervert eavesdrops on a conversation about an unplanned pregnancy, and stews in bitterness when the talk turns to abortion. In Time Share, in which a man is caught with his pants down by his wife, with a lover of the same sex, here is what passes for ‘realistic dialogue. Note how there is not a glimmer of insight, nor the offhanded poesy, that shines through in moments of real life, which great fiction always focuses on. This, by contrast, is merely blabbing, or wankery, as the British call it:
‘Does that make any sense?’
‘No, none.’ She shrugs, unwilling to say more.
‘But I understand. I understand that it makes sense to you….somehow."
‘It does. I know it sounds wobbly, but….’
‘And since it does, make sense, I mean, you’ll need to explain it to them….’
‘….what do you mean?’
‘You’re going to need to sit them down- they’re back from swimming in forty minutes- and you'll need to walk them through this as best you can.’
‘No, I can't . . .what?’
‘My leaving, I mean. You’ll need to come up with something for that. Tell them the rest if you want to, but you have to explain where I've gone.’
‘But where are you….?’
‘To the city, I suppose. For the night, anyway. I need to call my sister, and the lawyers, no doubt.’ She seems to tower over him at this moment, although she is only five feet three and not wearing heels, not even the espadrilles he’d bought her at that Wal-Mart on the way in. ‘I need to handle a few things.’
‘I can't tell them that! I mean, they're only….’
‘Children bounce back. They do, that's their lot in life.’
‘You explain things and on Saturday we’ll get them on a train, back into town, and they’ll be out of your hair.’ She smiles some inner smile at this. ‘Then you can go back over the fence….’
‘But I don’t want to.’
‘I want to….I mean, I’d like to, I’d really like to see if we could….’
‘What?’ She waits for him to finish but he only repeats the previous phrases over and over. Trying to jumpstart a solution but never getting past the opening. Finally, she picks up her bag, tests the weight of it, then moves toward the door. He doesn’t stop her.
‘Do you want me to carry that down or….?’
‘No, no, it’s fine. You’ve done enough, believe me….’
‘I love you guys. I do.’ He didn’t want to have to pull that one out, not at this late date but he goes for it. Pitches the love thing out there like a final horseshoe.
‘Well, that’s something you can hang on to, isn’t it? You can tell the kids that, if it helps….tell them I love them, too.’
‘We were just talking….we spent time on the same campus, for Chrissakes!’
‘Yeah, I caught that part….’
‘And we had some….’
‘When did you become so pathetic?’ This isn’t meant to be rhetorical.
‘….I’m not sure.’
‘Huh.’ She stands at the door now, flicking the light switch off more from habit than anything. He pulls his arms in and around his exposed upper body now, stands in the semidark staring at his departing wife. She starts down a step then turns back, rotates even, and comes into the room again. ‘Tell me one thing….’
‘What position did he play?’
‘Our neighbor….the guy who was sucking your dick.’ This is new for her, this strong language thing, and she seems to be enjoying it. ‘When you met him, what position was he playing?’
‘Oh….catcher. He was their catcher.’
‘….I see.. A pause, then a slight smile from her in the gloom.
‘I get it now….’
‘The significance of it all.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Come on, he’s the catcher….you don’t know anyone, you’re lonely, it’s New York, this guy’s kneeling at your feet, you’ve got your nice, firm bat there….I get it. It’s symbolic….’
A good writer trusts his audience, and would never have his characters state so blatantly what they could imply, and these characters not only state the obvious, but do so smugly. These scenes might work in a larger context of a play, but, set alone, they lose all power, such as in Wait, where for three pages- really three quarters of a typewritten page, a loser fantasizes as he waits for a prostitute to urinate on him. In this Internet age, where no one online is expected to read a piece of anything more than five hundred words, this is the level of ‘storytelling’ one gets, even offline.
In a way, these are O. Henry or Guy de Maupassant era tales with trick endings, but loads more puerility than those 19th Century writers had, for the payoff, as shown above, is never worth it. All the stories, beginning, middle, and end, die on the vine from their repetitive and imitative nature. And Labute’s starts to tale are no more revelatory than his climaxes nor end, and mind-numbingly similar. It’s as if he was so bereft of creativity that he started plagiarizing himself. Here are the starts to three stories, Look At Her, Wait, and Maraschino, and notice that the tales open at exactly the same moment, in exactly the same way, with a voyeur ogling the object of their obsession:
Look at her. Seriously,
look. There she is, over there. Unbelievable, right? I mean, I can’t take my
eyes off her. Really, I can’t….
Wait. Wait, I tell myself. No need to rush. Wait for it. If I can. I will if I can. I’m trying. I swear, I’m trying, but the thought of her. It’s hard. So hard. So I close my eyes. Concentrate….
It was good to see him again. Really, it was. He hadn’t actually changed a lot; I mean, not that much. A little, I guess, but I spotted him immediately. Almost, anyway….
This is what I meant about lack of characterization. Labute seems to have two, perhaps three stock characters, and he recycles them endlessly, putting them into absurd situations, and then trying to write his way out of them….and failing miserably, for he is, despite the subject matter of the pieces, a surprisingly Victorian moralist at heart. There is no situation he can imagine that he cannot reduce to its most sloganeering and intellectually nihil end. This is bad writing. This is puerility. This is mundanity. Am I being too Labutean here?
Of course, these tales almost all devolve into childishness, and are wholly dependent upon shock or twist endings, like all bad melodrama is. Reading these tales was like reading the writing exercises of a nineteen year old fetishist at a Creative Writing 101 workshop. The clichés abound, and the ‘dark’ tales never really scare a reader because Labute’s characters are so unrealistic. What works onscreen, when handled by a skilled actor, does not necessarily translate to a purely page-driven product. After the third or fourth story the endings of the tales scream at you from several pages’ distance. These are mechanical and ultimately hollow stories.
Perhaps I should be happy, though, for Grove Press, which sought to milk some money from this unadulterated crap, only let Labute get his bad fiction out into the public arena. It could have been worse. It could have been verse. Or is that still forthcoming?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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