The Art of Intimacy

Stacey D’Erasmo
Graywolf Press (2013)
144 pages; $12

Reviewed by Elizabeth O’Brien

Stacey D’Erasmo’s The Art of Intimacy , the latest addition to Graywolf’s series of short topical books on technical aspects of writing craft, is a smart exploration of what D’Erasmo calls “the space between.” Intimacy, the book argues, is created in the mental, emotional, and physical space between two parties, whether they are characters in the pages of a novel, or writer and reader. D’Erasmo studies and cites examples of the various intimacies in an eclectic selection of classic and contemporary texts to make this argument, including novels by Joan Didion, Joseph Conrad, Toni Morrison, and Percival Everett, among others. It is clear from the tone of the book that D’Erasmo, a novelist and a professor at Columbia University, feels she has a personal stake in this issue. “When I come to fiction, both as a reader and as a writer,” she says, “I wish for it to make visible something that, without it, I would perhaps never have seen.”

And yet the book begins not with books but with examples from other arts: Nan Goldin’s photography exhibit “Scopophilia” and the 1999 Spike Jonz film Being John Malkovitch. The characters in Jonz’s film meet “ in the subjunctive , in a possibility,” D’Erasmo tells us. It is the uncertainty of the merely possible that allows for intimacy in the film, because the characters participate in an intimate kind of world-making. A similar kind of intimacy exists as well as in William Maxwell’s novel So Long, See you Tomorrow, and in Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris. In each book, the encounters between the principal characters exist in real space, but they are fleeting, providing opportunities for bridging the imagined with the truly felt. This intimacy-via-the subjunctive resonates deeply with readers.

Any discussion of intimacy seems to require a discussion of the sexual, which D’Erasmo handles deftly in her apt choice of D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow as a lens through which to view physical intimacy. Rather than providing a comforting closeness between the characters, D’Erasmo points out that the intimacy of the sex in The Rainbow “causes the characters to feel uncertain, off-balance, strange, sometimes smaller, sometimes expanded in unexpected ways.” While the book would feel remiss without this section, the more unexpected types of intimacy discussed actually make for more compelling reading, as when D’Erasmo discusses images as a tool for creating intimacy between characters and readers. By bringing readers in closer to the scene, the book contends, images also bring readers into intimacy with the characters.

Writers who explicitly acknowledge their readers also invite an intimate relationship between readers and texts. Books that break down “the fourth wall” are discussed brilliantly here, as well, and D’Erasmo compares and differentiates with wonderful clarity between works of metafiction that insistently make it impossible for readers to lose themselves in the experience of reading, and books that elide, puzzle-like, and implicate readers through the reassembly that must occur as readers make sense of the text. Exploring Italo Calvino’s invoking his readership through second-person address, as well as Didion’s use of elision, D’Erasmo argues, “The topos, the meeting ground, for fiction that makes powerful use of the relationship between reader and writer is white space, which we can simultaneously consider to be white space on the page and the blankness, the open air, between reader and writer.” Occasionally the slant of the discussion shifts from readerly to writerly, as when D’Erasmo suggests, “When we come to the page hoping to reveal something about intimacy, it is all too easy to force the rough, wayward, polyphonous, uncertain nature of this phenomenon into shapes that we already know and then come to foregone conclusions.” And yet the tone remains conversational; D’Erasmo appears to be musing to herself as much here as she may be instructing readers.

In the first few pages of the book, D’Erasmo states, “that space between is vital, electric, and it often drives the story,” and her conviction in this idea drives her argument. This is a book that readers—and writers—will savor. The great pleasure, really of the Art of series in general, is that to read them is not to be instructed, or even lectured at, but to be listening in on an intelligent person in conversation with books.

Elizabeth O’Brien is co-editor-in-chief of dislocate. She writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and her work has appeared online and in print in the New England Review, Diagram, decomP, PANK, Sixth Finch, Swink, the Pinch, Versal, Juked, A capella Zoo, Slice, the Emerson Review, Flashquake, and elsewhere. Her book reviews appear regularly on NewPages.com. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota.