Sexual Odyssey

Margaret Diehl's 'Men' Is Unadulterated By Apology Or Consequence.

By Jami Macarty

Men, by Margaret Diehl (Soho Press). Paper, $13.

SEX IS THE first word of Men, Margaret Diehl's first novel. Men is actually a character study of a woman, 21-year-old Stella James, who explores the nature of her instincts and the source of her desire. Although the novel was published in 1988, it's been re-released because it was made into a film starring Sean Young and John Heard in 1997. A spokesman at Soho Press (the publisher of Men) hopes the film will never see the light of day. Forego the movie, when it comes out on video, and meet Stella on the page instead; the book was a pleasure to read. Men is a well-written, subversively feminist novel with sex in its proper, exalted place.

Books Diehl's Stella believes "in the wildness of sexual anarchy, especially female sexual anarchy." Needless to say, Stella is a brainy, independent woman who doesn't feel guilty about her sexual adventurousness. These are important traits in a heroine, since many female characters express regret for what and whom they desire, and, as a result of their prurient behavior, something bad happens to them.

This system of justice, predicted by certain forces in society, has become a staple in stories about outspoken women vying for their independence. The delivery of such a consistent message makes it hard not to get tangled up in this expectation. Can the question of whether bad things will happen to Stella as she roams the streets of New York City looking for sex with strangers be avoided? After all, we remember Looking For Mr. Goodbar. But, not one bad thing ever happens to Stella: no gang rape, no knifing, no STD.

The most she ever has to endure is the narcissism of her partners, like Rudy, who "when he was done with his violent stories, recited a long poem he had written...with echoes of Shakespearean melancholy and occasional asides to the universe"; and Vince, who'd go on for hours with convoluted explanations of the rights and privileges of men.

It must be considered then, that violence is the exception; a woman's conscious choice to have sex with a stranger does not necessarily correlate to a punishment for that choice. As Stella aptly states, "So much for the argument of provocative dress and male instincts."

The lonely, desperate image of one-night stands must also be revised since Stella "rarely feels embarrassment, and never distress." She marvels at her "telepathic lust," which leads her to "the ordinary men who could love a woman forever"; "the tough ones, sure of their charm"; and "the darker more brooding souls." Stella describes her encounters as "union, surrounded by solitude in its most royal form. To undress or be undressed, to cling and kiss without love, but with honesty, made me feel like Eve, alone with the only man on earth."

Stella isn't interested in the men, per se; she's interested in what she's looking for: "So this was Nathan," she muses. "What does Nathan have to do with me?" She is capable both of asking the question of Nathan's relativism and also of providing the answer. "My parents had left me (in the care of her grandmother when she was 6 years old), so I search for love. I would never be satisfied because my desire transcended the sexual...." It is simple and uncomplicated: Not only is Stella "strong enough to provide what her past demanded; she took it as a challenge."

Beyond this, Diehl's novel is never explicit in its discussion of Stella's motivations; this may mirror her character's own lack of interest in these depths. Stella doesn't sit around and analyze herself or her feelings of abandonment, as she's too busy testing her premise that men "could be gone up to, led away and kissed." In fact, what's interesting about the writing is the direct description of the characters' actions. In the style of Raymond Carver, we see what the characters do, as if watching from a window, and decide for ourselves the reasons why. It's a good thing, too. Otherwise, Men might have ended up psychologically overwrought.

But, a life like this can't last. Eventually Stella migrates from New York to Berkeley and the inevitable happens. She falls in love with Frank. Though Stella's struggle has never been with guilt, she must now wrestle with the compromises of monogamy and promiscuity. In the end, she's restored to convention and her exploits become a rite of passage that lead to the same destiny of a more chaste youth--the reward of a monogamous relationship with a loving man. As disappointing as this destination may be, it was a lot of fun getting there. As the book's subtitle states, "So many men, so little time." TW

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