by Gina Frangello
Published by OV Books, 2011 | 350 pages
Men Undressed is a collection of stories by female authors writing from the perspective of male protagonists. Each story deals with sex, usually explicitly. But though explicit, the stories are never simple, never just about pleasure and bodies. Though the media would have us believe otherwise, the authors of Men Undressed suggest that male sexuality is just as mental as female, in both senses of the word.
In Men Undressed, the male gaze is reversed. What we find in this reversal is not a purely physical sex but an extremely psychological one, full of strife and pain, pride, love, and self-actualization. The protagonists here obsess over their own dysfunctional and frequently sad sexualities. Pornography, BDSM, lust, heartbreak, and loneliness: all come into play in the (flawed) male conception to intimacy. A divorced man tries to reconcile a broken marriage and a broken career. A sex addict is equally repulsed by and attracted to an anorexic woman in the cooking section of a bookstore. A wife is physically incapable of having sex and neither she nor her doctors understand why. A husband is in love with his wife, but also with his ex-lover, a man. As suggested by the “undressed” of the cover, sexuality, in all its diverse manifestations, is the focal point here, exposed, vulnerable, confused.
The authors use simple language to convey these complex desires and preoccupations. The collection’s prose, to its own benefit, is generally unadorned. In contrast, the collection is at its worst when it over-seasons with profanity. A well-placed “fuck” can add something; too many can seem like a crutch. Strangely, this is the only consistent reminder that women, not men, authored these male-centered stories. The profanity can feel like posturing, as though there were something to prove.
As with most compilations, some stories are stronger than others. One in particular stands out. Elizabeth Searle’s “And a Dead American,” a coming-of-age story set in a suburban US town, brings together a 15-year-old boy from a liberal upbringing, a Vietnamese immigrant maid without a visa, and a Middle Eastern family that keeps to itself. The story’s last sentence, “I did what I could” – meaning, in context, “I did what I could get away with” – is disquieting, a closing line that resonates throughout the collection. It’s a particularly salient example of how these stories, ostensibly about sex, manifest themes beyond the bedroom: identity, morals, trust, and betrayal. “And a Dead American,” with its familiar details and fall-from-innocence theme, leaves one feeling, despite the physical intimacy all around, that true community is impossible.
Even as the women writers plumb their male character’s psyches, the book casts doubt on how far this investigation can go. The authors cut the stories short, just as we feel we’re getting somewhere; all seem to end a page premature. The quickness with which the stories wrap up (often by not wrapping up) show this project for what it is: an opening, rather than a closing. The authors do not formally resolve the work because the work cannot yet be resolved. For women trying to reverse the gaze, take on a sexual, male voice in their writing, Men Undressed is just a beginning. The investigation is preliminary.
At the end of Men Undressed, there is a transformation: a Gregor Samsa-like unnamed protagonist changes into a man after finding a dildo on the ground. After a day of contemplating, leering, and drinking, he doesn’t turn back into a woman, but instead into a doll. The authors included in Men Undressed generally attempt their appropriations of men’s sexuality without much apology, just as men have appropriated female sexuality. But this final transformation – not just back into a woman, but into a doll, without genitals, autonomy, or motion – shows its author’s doubts about the permanent viability of the role these women writers have taken on. This story, more surreal than the rest, ends the book in ambiguity. The boundaries between love and lust, between woman and man, between homosexual and heterosexual, are fluid throughout the collection, but in Kim Addonizio’s final story that fluidity hardens into plastic. The protagonist is literally objectified as the male and female sexuality, unified in mind and body, becomes a little girl’s play doll. We think of Barbie: attractive breasts but no vagina, with no real sexuality of her own. Recuperating that sexuality–and experimenting with men’s sexuality–is the starting point of Men Undressed. In Addonizio’s stifling, startling ending, it’s also the stopping point. It serves as a reminder that there’s still a ways to go.
Erin Becker is an English teacher in Santiago, Chile, a graduate of the English and Creative Writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her interests include the relationship between propaganda and literature, writers during wartime, and contemporary media discourse.