marginalia || The Brutal Language of Love, by Alicia Erian

A long time ago, as I was traipsing along the depths of the internet, I found a quote that made my soul go all a-flutter; it’s stuck to me ever since—parts of it, I’ve discovered I have already memorized:

But Penny resisted him. He was hers for the taking, and this was the problem. Love was never easy, she knew. And if it was, it wasn’t love—friendship maybe, but not love. What she felt for Leonard was something limp and slack. It had no charge, no current running through it to hurt her if she wasn’t careful. The reality was, you only knew you were loved if you were left and returned to, if you were ignored and then craved. Occasionally you would be seen for slightly less than the sum of your parts, and that was love, too. Love announced itself with a sting, not a pat. If love was love, it was urgent and ripe and carried with it the faint odor of humiliation, so that there was always something to be made up for later, some apology in the works. Love was never clean, never quiet, never polite. Love rarely did what you asked it to, let along what you dreamed it might do, and it most certainly did not know that your favorite color was blue.

That’s from the title story of The Brutal Language of Love, short story collection by Alicia Erian. Doesn’t that make you breathless? It’s just a couple of lines, but it had me hunting down–for three-four years?–this book. I couldn’t order it online [greedy little bleepers over at Customs, for seriously], and I couldn’t find it in any of the local bookstores. I scoured secondhand bookstores, and couldn’t find it–although last year I did get my hands on her novel, Towelhead, and it was 50 bucks (about a dollar), so that sort of tempered the urges. And when I thought I’d never find this book, I swallowed my pride and, well, shyness, and asked an aunt to act all Prometheus-like and send me a copy from the US.

Then two days ago, at a completely random visit to one of the BookSales around the office, there, in its bowels, I found this book. I grabbed it immediately, but the chant in my head was, I cannot fucking believe this is happening. Forty-five bucks. 45. It felt like The Universe was rewarding me after a particularly crappy day.

I found my book. I could finally read Alicia Erian’s stories, be plunged into that world I’d preconditioned myself to like, just because of that one quote. Finally. [Yes, I squeezed it into the schedule.]

And so I read immediately. Breezed through ″Standing Up to the Superpowers,″ which, I realize, could immediately be a template for Erian’s characters–the young and the sexually promiscuous and the morally wonky [as with the protagonist of Towelhead, as with the rest of these stories.] It started off quirky and just so wrongly oddball. And then it ended. Or, rather, some cosmic hand karate-chopped off what was supposed to be the ending. It just stopped. I was bewildered, but let it pass, and went on to the next one–″Alcatraz,″ which is, lo and behold, a spelling bee champion having sexy times with her neighbor. And they’re thirteen. It’s sexual. It’s not erotic, not sensual. It’s sex. Sex. Oh, some parts of it were sweet, strangely so. The glaring naiveté in what was such a shmexical encounter. And, as with the previous story, it just ended. And left me really baffled.

By the time I’d finished with the next story, I wrote down on my notebook: These are, I’m afraid, mediocre stories. People who make terrible choices–and those terrible choices tend to be the most noticeable parts of their personality, and this is a sad thing, because then, craftwise, the characters are nothing more than decisions. They’re not people. They’re situations, they’re This Girl Taking A Bath With Her Neighbor; it’s This Woman Who Marries An Asshole. See ″On the Occasion of My Ruination,″ which I was set to like–young summer love and all that. It was sweet, and it was funny, and the sex wasn’t bad. But it fell apart because Erian got lazy with the ending. Yet again. That’s the thing. That’s what I dislike most–how careless Erian is.

There were good ones, though. One was ″Almonds and Cherries,″ an intricate little story about bras and salesladies and bisexuals and lesbians and “temporary lesbians”–

She moved closer to Hazel now—much, much closer—and suddenly found herself possessed of a profound appreciation for moisture and fragrance, a refined sense of geography as it applied to those areas of the body women shared. And she felt, from Hazel’s reactions, that she had a knack for this sort of thing. For the first time in her life the generosity aspect of sex had ceased to feel like work to her. She thought she might go on forever.

I suppose I like it because it was quiet. Because it wasn’t about a snotty teenager showing off her “deficiencies” in social interaction, her rabid sexuality, her blah blah blahs. It’s about convoluted relationships and strange people self-awarely trying to have convoluted relationships.

And then there was ″Lass,″ the one other story that I really liked. This, too, was quiet. Erian let her characters speak for themselves–Shayna marries into an artsy-affluent family of painters and writers, and what choice does forbidden love have but to ensue? Again, very quiet, very sensual, and Erian let go of that annoying self-consciousness of hers, and let the language just flow.

Though nothing official had yet taken place, they had begun contemplating zippers, buttons, hooks and eyes. Unabashed stares passed between them. With increasing frequency, they passed their afternoons in the same chair.

So, yes, I was feeling very very very disappointed by the time I read all but one of the stories–I had saved the title story for last. Guess what? I didn’t even like it that much. The story ″The Brutal Language of Love″ suffers from the same things as most of the stories in the collection–vapid characters, eye-roll-inducing situations, clunky language. Yep, clunky language. See, even the unabashedly supple and Look At Me, I’m An Utterance! kind of language I thought I’d find within the pages–wanted to find within the pages–well, it wasn’t even there.

And I realized: That quote I now knew by heart, it was the best part of the collection. And this really hurt me. This hurt a lot. Here was a book I’d been wanting for years, dropped onto my lap one evening after work. And it was such a disappointment. I made excuses for it first, so many excuses. By the time I’d finished the collection, I was resigned, though. It just wasn’t right. It wasn’t what I thought it would be.

Where does the fault lie, with this let-down of the century? I don’t know what to believe in anymore. I mean, did I really expect too much? Is this a classic case of Great Expectations Unmet? Did I just too obsessively project what I wanted–what I’d assumed was there for me–based on one kick-ass quote? For seriously? Fuck this shit, ladies and gentlemen. Fuck this shit.

11 thoughts on “marginalia || The Brutal Language of Love, by Alicia Erian

  1. What a shame. That quote has my heart, hook line and sinker. I’d still like to read it anyway :(

    1. I have carried that quote with me for three-four years. The disappointment really hurts. Still, the book got rave reviews [the jacket is littered with them], so maybe I’m at the minority?

  2. What a bummer! I’ve had a version of this experience before, where I’ll read a quote or a page, buy the book, go home and meh. It’s worse in your situation though because you actually waited years to read the book. Better luck next time around.

    1. It’s a habit for me, I guess? Ya know, it’s actually this quote from Jeffrey Eugenides’ introduction to My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead that started me on wanting the book so much.

      When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims-these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.

      [Me and my fascination with this love thing, haha.] But that one paid off. This one, well, just didn’t for me. :(

  3. Aaw what a shame. I can’t remember if I ever had disappointment in this scale before. I agree that the first quote above sounds really good.

    1. Yes, that quote’s just so good, I carried it with me for so long. Am actually trying not to look at Erian’s book right now. It still hurts, hahaha.

  4. Aghhhh I hate when stuff like this happens. I can’t remember the last time it did (probably sometime in high school when I obsessed about lots of things), but it’s so hard to admit to yourself that it’s not as good as you had expected. I think that happens on occasion with movies I watch, but I haven’t experienced that gut-wrenching disappointment in a while.

    Oh well, don’t let it ruin the quote for you!

    1. The quote’s still very beautiful to me. Now that I think about it, my feelings toward the quote haven’t diminished. That is, I don’t love it less. Maybe I love it more now, since I’ve figured it’s a gem among the muck I didn’t want the collection to be. And it was just so difficult to resign myself to, “The stories are mediocre.” But it’s not fair, I want to rally, I waited for this book for years! But what can I do? Hahaha, I’ll get over it. In a couple of months.


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